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The Constitution Today by Akhil Reed Amar

Akhil Reed Amar tries to do a lot of things in his most recent book The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era. He acknowledges his ambitious goals in his lengthy introduction where he writes that he is offering three books in one: a book on constitutional substance, a book on constitutional method, and a book on constitutional time. Amar explains that he wants to help readers understand the Constitution by presenting a survey of contemporary constitutional law, a lesson in how to do constitutional law, and a reflection in the tensions between constitutionalism and journalism.

Additionally, he presents several arguments in the book, including the arguments that there are right and wrong answers in American constitutional law, that these right and wrong answers in law can be discovered before history deems them correct or incorrect, and that the Constitution does directly address big-picture issues. He addresses specific parts of the introduction and conclusion specifically to journalists and to a larger audience as well.

If this seems like a lot of arguments in one book, that is because it is. Amar is successful in achieving them but at the cost of the readability of the book. One of Amar’s goals in the book is to discuss the tension between constitutionalism and journalism by surround his original journalistic essays with lengthy introductions that contextualize the essays and provide insight to the passage of time and hindsight. This repetitive material weakens the text. Amar writes a long introduction that summarizes the arguments and materials in each section and chapter of the book, then provides the same information again in more detail in the introduction to each individual chapter. He often writes pages of introduction detailing the arguments he made in the essays to follow before sharing his original essays in each chapter.

Amar’s intentions miss the mark here; he does successfully show the tension between constitutionalism and journalism and the importance of time, but the material is too repetitive to be effective. The book’s arguments would be improved if Amar cut down some of the introductory material as the amount of summary of the arguments is unnecessary, especially when found both in the actual introduction and the beginning of each chapter.

Amar argues that there are “right” answers to constitutional problems and that these “right” answers can be discovered by approaching constitutional issues the correct way before history has declared a constitutional answer right or wrong. This is an interesting argument that does deserve exploration, but Amar’s evidence for this argument is his own writings on constitutional issues. The lack of distance and impartiality that comes with Amar using his own writings to prove this argument makes it difficult to take this argument seriously, especially when Amar’s analysis of his own writings is so egotistic and self-centered. His introductions are filled with sentences filled with “me” and “my”; he only presents his own articles and his own arguments, so the reader only reads one side of the argument.

Amar is not successful then in proving his argument about finding the right constitutional answers because he only presents a very narrow line of evidence based on his own writings; even though he acknowledges the shortcomings in some of his earlier writings, there is not enough time between his writings and the present to declare constitutional rights or wrongs, and there is not enough distance between the original writer and the person evaluating the writings—because both are Amar.

Amar incorrectly assumes that his audience has basic historical and factual knowledge of the topics and events surrounding the case studies he writes about. He emphasizes legal history in both his introductions to chapters as well as in the essays themselves but often dives into the legal history without giving enough historical context for the reader. Now, Amar is probably safe in assuming as he does in the conclusion that many journalists (who he specifies in his audience) will indeed know enough of the historical context because many of them will have lived through the events. But this is not the case for the full range of his audience.

First, younger journalists, precisely the ones who would benefit greatly from a book like this due to their inexperience, may not have lived through all of these events or may have been too young or unaware of them at the time. Any journalist today under the age of 30 would have been fourteen or younger during the Bush v. Gore case and other cases in the early 2000s and would have barely been going to school during the Clinton years. This segment of Amar’s intended audience would benefit greatly from more emphasis of the historical context of the situations Amar is writing about.

Second, Amar’s book is also aimed at students as a primer in constitutional substance and methods, and as with younger journalists, these students will not come into the book with the necessary historical framework needed to understand Amar’s legal arguments.

Third, one of the main points Amar makes about journalists and others reading the book is that they need to do more research and put more effort into learning about constitutional history. He writes, “journalists often have little sense of history.” If Amar recognizes that large portions of his audience lack the necessary historical knowledge to understand the importance and context of the legal arguments he is making, he needs to meet the audience halfway and provide some context before delving into constitutional methods and substance. Amar would do well to consider this segment of his audience and provide at the very least brief summaries of the historical context for events such as the Starr report and the Paula Jones case.

While Amar lacks sufficient historical emphasis, his legal emphasis neatly sidesteps political bias. He is transparent about his political views from the beginning, laying out how his political views differ from his legal opinions in issues like gun control, filibusters, and even party politics. He argues that law differs from politics and maintains throughout his introductory material and his essays a line between his legal views and his political views. Interestingly, Amar’s style but not his arguments push this boundary between legal and political arguments throughout his work. He considers himself to be an edgy writer, pushing for a clever or very direct phrase to convey how he feels about an issue, and this can be confused as a political statement or a bias in his argument, when in fact it is a rhetorical strategy to capture the attention of his readers, especially the original audience of his online essays—“the people.” Amar’s arguments remain nonpartisan and based in his studies of constitutional law, not mere opinion.


Citation: Amar, Akhil Reed. The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era. New York: Basic Books, 2016.