Race and The Cycles of Constitutional Time

41 Pages Posted: 16 Feb 2021 Last revised: 5 Oct 2021

Date Written: January 20, 2021


My 2020 book, The Cycles of Constitutional Time, argues that we can understand American constitutional development in terms of three different kinds of cycles. The first is the rise and fall of political regimes featuring dominant political parties. The second is a very long cycle of polarization and depolarization that stretches from the Civil War through the present. The third cycle is a series of episodes of constitutional rot and constitutional renewal.

This essay shows how each of these cycles has deep connections to successive political struggles over race and racial equality in the United States.

Each regime’s winning coalition is shaped by the politics of slavery (in the antebellum period) or race (after the Thirteenth Amendment). In several cases, the dominant coalition eventually breaks down because of disputes about slavery or race. The cycle of polarization is also highly correlated with attempts by politicians to make race, and more generally, identity, the central questions that divide the two major political parties. Finally, polarization over race and identity-- along with increasing income inequality--has been an important factor in each period of constitutional rot in the country's history.

I do not claim that race is either the sole or the dominant explanation for the cycles of constitutional time in the United States. Nevertheless, race is a powerful factor, and the politics of race are an important driver of the cycles of regimes, polarization, and rot described in the book. My purpose in this Article is to highlight the role that racial politics plays in the transformations described in The Cycles of Constitutional Time, and to show how questions of race are important at each stage of the story.

Keywords: Cycles, Constitution, Race, Slavery, Regime, Political Parties, Polarization, Constitutional Rot

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., Race and The Cycles of Constitutional Time (January 20, 2021). Missouri Law Review, 2021, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3770410 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3770410

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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