Every country has a constitution of some sort that outlines the government’s structure. A constitution is simply the set of rules that govern how power is distributed and exercised. In other words, these rules structure the government of a state. Without such a set of rules, the state could not function and anarchy would reign. Although no constitution can cover every possible question or issue, all states need to spell out at least the fundamental matters of the distribution and use of power.
Some constitutions—such as that of the United States or the Basic Law of Germany—are codified into written documents. In other states, such as the United Kingdom, the constitution consists of many documents, laws, court rulings, and traditional practices that have never been compiled into a single document. But in every case, custom, history, and tradition play an important role.
Strong constitutions share three characteristics, or principles, of constitution design:
Example: The U.S. Constitution has been amended nearly thirty times, allowing Americans to adapt their structure of government to changing mores, beliefs, and practices. The Bill of Rights was the first set of amendments. Other amendments include the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery illegal in 1865, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920.
Although these three principles of constitutional design help ensure solid governmental structures, ultimately they are merely guidelines. Some successful constitutions do not include them, and a number of states have succeeded in imposing governments that differ greatly from tradition. Unfortunately, any radical departures from tradition or history usually require violence.
Example: After a fourteen-year war to gain independence from Portugal, Angola entered into a decades-long civil war to determine which ethnic political party would head the country. Intervention from other nation-states, which favored one party over another and wanted to see their favorite gain dominance, exacerbated the violence.
Some constitutions are short documents. The U.S. Consti-tution, for example, covers only a few pages. Others are lengthy. The Basic Law of Germany, for example, is roughly five times as long as the U.S. Constitution. As a general rule, older constitutions are shorter than newer constitutions.
Example: In the United States, state constitutions are frequently far longer than the federal one, which was ratified in 1789. In part, this is because most state con-stitutions were written after the federal one. Even states that predate the federal Constitution have rewritten their constitutions, sometimes more than once.
Constitutions, particularly short ones, tend to be vague in their contents. Vague constitutions have two advantages:
Example: The vague U.S. Constitution has encouraged political leaders to work together through congressional committees. These committees have become a hallmark of the American democratic process.