Making Time for Constitutional Politics

Nomi Claire Lazar is Professor of Politics in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada, where she also sits on the Governing Board. She is the author of States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies (Cambridge, 2009) and Out of Joint: Power, Crisis and the Rhetoric of Time (Yale, 2019). Her current work engages apocalyptic politics and the political theory of extremism.  

In his famous address at Gettysburg, Lincoln traced an arc of time: back toward a point of origin, through a crux – the ravaged present of the Civil War – and forward to a promised dawn of democratic peace and freedom. In spare words, he told his people what the moment meant. While events often seem momentous because of their perceived meaning for our future, how can we know the future before it arrives? 

Leaders long before Lincoln, and long after too, have used a rhetorical technique I call temporal framing to suggest what the future must be, despite this not-knowing. Through this technique, they construct an event’s meaning as a mechanism of legitimating power and action. Beyond wartime speeches, this technique is naturally well suited to the promulgation or amendment of constitutions, and speeches at such moments are full of time talk. Arcs of time make their way into preambles, and constitutional articles too. Attention to temporal framing in constitutional rhetoric is rewarding in its own right, illuminating strategies of legitimation. But it also illuminates key non-legal purposes of law. Perhaps, constitution making is sometimes driven as much by the need for a momentous event as by the need for the law itself.  

Constitutional legitimation

Legal and political scholars normally assess constitutional legitimacy against procedural and moral norms they already accept as legitimate: were consultation and consent procedures adequate? Do provisions reflect the rule of law, and fit broadly with republican or liberal democratic values? Indeed, justificatory claims generally work like this. We assess how one claim fits with underlying, already accepted, ordering frameworks: reason, the order of nature, rules of scientific evidence, religious dogma etc. 

But normal means of legitimation are inadequate for constitutions because constitutions are peculiar alchemical devices. A key purpose of constitutions, after all, is to convert facts into norms, and norms into facts. That is to say, constitutions establish not just claims, but novel justificatory orders in their own right, and so demand more expansive legitimation, to satisfy a more expansive, impacted constituency. So while scholars may focus on a constitution’s procedural or value conformity, leaders, with a diverse audience in mind, anchor the legitimacy of constitutional change in more diverse ordering frames, and among these is temporality

Constitutions emerge onto the political scene – intimate with crisis – less as laws than as contentious events, as turning points, as moments which appear to rupture political and social time. Entrenching the power relations of a moment, a new constitution aims to alter the paths and hedges that channel the conduct of politics, and institutions’ symbolic power too. So while such a crisis – manufactured or otherwise – can be costly, if well played, it can yield legitimacy lucre too. And whether or not people buy it – both the constitution itself and the need for it in the first place – will determine the economy of legitimacy for political action going forward. Good persuasion, at such moments, yields legitimacy dividends. 

Leaders attentive to a diverse audience persuade in diverse and overlapping ways. If the crisis sparking constitutional reform appears externally generated, leaders may communicate charismatic capacity by claiming to resolve it. And of course leaders also call out fit between the constitution and truths that seem self-evident: the diverse ordering frameworks of tradition, shared values, holiness, etc.. 

But all of these forms of legitimation are, in a way, subservient to peoples’ overarching concern: Is the constitutional event a good thing? Above all, people want to know what the constitution means, for their future. But how can leaders respond? How can they claim to know the future? 

Shaping Time

As I have argued at length in Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time, across eras and cultures, at moments of political crisis and upheaval, political leaders have used constructions of time to purport to tell the future. In doing so, they work to legitimate and delegitimate power. Because these constructions seem natural, temporal order does its legitimation work with particular stealth, and hence power. 

But how is it that a leader can construct time, and how can it be used to tell the future? We tend to think of time, instead, as a spontaneous byproduct of nature. We associate months with moons, days with tides or the rise/set of the sun, years with the seasons, wet/dry or hot/cold. Then time is kept accurately, we think, when our clocks and calendars accurately reflect natural time. Yet a moment’s reflection reveals how divorced our structures of time are from natural cycles: seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, and months are all human constructs claiming the most tenuous connection with natural cycles. No Gregorian month maps a lunar orbit, and no one seriously suggests it should. Should we then say that abstract Newtonian time is true and accurate, and hence that time is not a byproduct but a natural abstraction? But what could this mean beyond stipulation (hence, construction)? We can only experience time through marks and measures, and have no direct access to time itself. What would it be like to experience time itself? Without direct access, how could we know our marks and measures were the right ones?  

We create structures of time because they are useful and we claim they are accurate to the extent that they help us meet some aim. The aims are ours, and so too are the technologies for meeting them. Marks and measures we use to track time do not belong to nature, they belong to us. 

Since we do a lot of things with time – cook eggs, power GPS – we have a lot of measures too. Oscillating atoms, oven timers, watches that tell us when to catch a bus. How easily we reconcile that a day starts just past midnight, but also at dawn. How thoughtlessly we move between Gregorian, academic, and religious calendars. 

In addition to these diverse clock and calendar measures, we think of time in diverse, larger arcs too. I call these arcs conceptions of the flow of time. These structure narratives and tell us what an event means beyond itself, why it matters. That is, conceptions of the flow of time shape the meaning in our experience. Like clocks and calendars, we move among conceptions of the flow of time with little conscious attention. A child’s cognitive development, our accumulation of experience, or a career path may be progressive, while decay and degeneration structure our understanding of the inevitabilities of life. These linear conceptions sit easily with grand cyclic notions that tie tokens to types: A token holiday celebration is unique, but the type recurs, and binds an individual life to a grander part-cylic, part-linear narrative of family or people. Lives are series of linear tokens that together constitute cyclic types. And these map, in turn, onto more fundamental lines and circles: nitrogen cycles and evolutionary paths. While there are other, salient and complex temporal frames, these examples illustrate time has diverse shapes, structured by diverse marks and measures, meeting diverse needs for meaning and sense.

Because we can only experience time through the marks and measures we construct, and because we are at ease and receptive to diverse constructions of time, by changing marks and measures, it becomes possible to change the way we experience and understand events. Like clock and calendar time, these conceptions of the flow of time mimic phenomena in nature, but remain our own constructions. We shape time, yet it continues to appear to us, to appeal to us, as natural. 

Here is a ripe resource for an enterprising political leader: an ordering framework that shapes meaning and experience, and that seems natural, but isn’t. How can it be generative of legitimacy? 

Temporal Framing

In Out of Joint, I explored a wide range of techniques for using orders of time to legitimate and delegitimate. But those who use time to legitimate constitutions commonly use conceptions of the flow of time for a technique I’ve called temporal rhetorical framing. It works like this. 

The rhetor situates the crisis which brought about the constitution’s promulgation, and the promulgation itself, in an event series. To create this series, the rhetor carefully selects events from the near infinite variety history presents. The chosen event series culminates in the Big Event of the new constitution. Tracing a line through these points directs our gaze toward the horizon. Its arc takes on a familiar shape – progress or the threat of decay, grand cyclic rise or eschatological punctuation. All these shapes of time characterize our stories and the ways we shape meaning within our lives. Dot to dot, event to event we know this type of narrative, we know what a crisis means within it, we know what type of thing comes next. With the event of the constitution so framed, we know what it means for the future. 

Both in the preambles to constitutions and in speeches around their promulgation, we see evidence of this technique. Two fine examples, the politics of which are analyzed in detail here, are the preambles to China’s 1978 and 1982 constitutions, and the preamble to the 2012 Hungarian Basic Law

The preamble to China’s 1978 constitution is rife with rupture rhetoric, full of fervor and framed in an eschatological conception of the flow of time. Notably, it dates China’s birth to the throwing off of “feudal rule” in 1949. But rejecting that constitution just four years later, following Deng’s ascension and the shift to reform, the 1982 preamble draws the date of China’s birth way back, reframing what it means to be China. Now China is a continuous entity millennia old, and the events of the 20th century and Mao’s rule in particular are just episodes, not the penultimate event before the eschatological Dawn. The 1982 constitution is actively reframed as an event that leads to a restoration of China to the right developmental path. And the direction forward is now positively progressive. Step-by-step, the constitutional reform will help China on its gradual but determined journey toward a brighter future. These preambles use temporal framing to tell Chinese people distinct stories about what China is, and why each constitution was drafted. With distinct temporal frames, leaders aimed to bolster legitimation efforts at distinct political moments. 

The Hungarian preamble, which leads a constitution drafted with little substantive public consultation, is by contrast, grand cyclic: Hungary was founded by St. Stephen in the year 1000, and the Hungarian people rose to greatness through their own intrinsic character. External, nefarious forces dragged Hungary down in the 20th century, but the event of this new constitution (which entrenched Fidesz’s power) means the Hungarian people will, now, at the dawn of the new millennium rise again to their former glory. Like the Chinese preambles, this grand cyclic frame contributes to the legitimation of the constitution, not by showing evidence of popular consent, nor by demonstrating adherence to the right political norms. Rather by placing the event of the constitution’s promulgation in a broader event series, and drawing an arc through that series, the temporal frame points to the glorious future, with the constitution as a necessary means to achieve it.  

Whatever other normative means people use to assess constitutional legitimacy, whatever conceptions of right order or procedure scholars hold up as the standard, people generally want to know that change will make their lives better: more secure, more fulfilling. By situating a constitutional event in a constructed temporal order, leaders harness this fact. Of course this form of legitimation could not stand alone, but it adds to a constitution’s overall stores of legitimacy, bolstering its stability and the political power it grounds going forward. 

Attention to techniques of temporal framing remind us that constitutions are not just frameworks of justification, justified in turn by standard procedural and liberal normative order. They are also means of symbolic communication, momentous political events, storehouses of legitimacy, and, to achieve all this, ultimately alchemical mechanisms for turning facts into norms and norms into facts. To properly engage with these broader constitutional functions may require both that we listen more carefully to episodes of constitutional persuasion, and attend to framing techniques in preambles and beyond. 

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