Political organizations are constitutional to the extent that they "contain institutionalized mechanisms of power control for the protection of the interests and liberties of the citizenry, including those that may be in the minority". As described by political scientist and constitutional scholar David Fellman:
Constitutionalism is descriptive of a complicated concept, deeply embedded in historical experience, which subjects the officials who exercise governmental powers to the limitations of a higher law. Constitutionalism proclaims the desirability of the rule of law as opposed to rule by the arbitrary judgment or mere fiat of public officials ... Throughout the literature dealing with modern public law and the foundations of statecraft the central element of the concept of constitutionalism is that in political society government officials are not free to do anything they please in any manner they choose; they are bound to observe both the limitations on power and the procedures which are set out in the supreme, constitutional law of the community. It may therefore be said that the touchstone of constitutionalism is the concept of limited government under a higher law.
Constitutionalism has prescriptive and descriptive uses. Law professor Gerhard Casper captured this aspect of the term in noting, "Constitutionalism has both descriptive and prescriptive connotations. Used descriptively, it refers chiefly to the historical struggle for constitutional recognition of the people's right to 'consent' and certain other rights, freedoms, and privileges. Used prescriptively, its meaning incorporates those features of government seen as the essential elements of the... Constitution".
One example of constitutionalism's descriptive use is law professor Bernard Schwartz's five volume compilation of sources seeking to trace the origins of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Beginning with English antecedents going back to Magna Carta (1215), Schwartz explores the presence and development of ideas of individual freedoms and privileges through colonial charters and legal understandings. Then in carrying the story forward, he identifies revolutionary declarations and constitutions, documents and judicial decisions of the Confederation period and the formation of the federal Constitution. Finally, he turns to the debates over the federal Constitution's ratification that ultimately provided mounting pressure for a federal bill of rights. While hardly presenting a straight line, the account illustrates the historical struggle to recognize and enshrine constitutional rights and principles in a constitutional order.
In contrast to describing what constitutions are, a prescriptive approach addresses what a constitution should be. As presented by Canadian philosopher Wil Waluchow, constitutionalism embodies "the idea... that government can and should be legally limited in its powers, and that its authority depends on its observing these limitations. This idea brings with it a host of vexing questions of interest not only to legal scholars, but to anyone keen to explore the legal and philosophical foundations of the state." One example of this prescriptive approach was the project of the National Municipal League to develop a model state constitution.
Whether reflecting a descriptive or prescriptive focus, treatments of the concept of constitutionalism all deal with the legitimacy of government. One recent assessment of American constitutionalism, for example, notes that the idea of constitutionalism serves to define what it is that "grants and guides the legitimate exercise of government authority". Similarly, historian Gordon S. Wood described this American constitutionalism as "advanced thinking" on the nature of constitutions in which the constitution was conceived to be a "sett of fundamental rules by which even the supreme power of the state shall be governed." Ultimately, American constitutionalism came to rest on the collective sovereignty of the people, the source that legitimized American governments.
One of the most salient features of constitutionalism is that it describes and prescribes both the source and the limits of government power. William H. Hamilton has captured this dual aspect by noting that constitutionalism "is the name given to the trust which men repose in the power of words engrossed on parchment to keep a government in order."
The study of constitutions is not necessarily synonymous with the study of constitutionalism. Although frequently conflated, there are crucial differences. A discussion of this difference appears in legal historian Christian G. Fritz's American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, a study of the early history of American constitutionalism. Fritz notes that an analyst could approach the study of historic events focusing on issues that entailed "constitutional questions" and that this differs from a focus that involves "questions of constitutionalism." Constitutional questions involve the analyst in examining how the constitution was interpreted and applied to distribute power and authority as the new nation struggled with problems of war and peace, taxation and representation. However,
These political and constitutional controversies also posed questions of constitutionalism—how to identify the collective sovereign, what powers the sovereign possessed, and how one recognized when that sovereign acted. Unlike constitutional questions, questions of constitutionalism could not be answered by reference to given constitutional text or even judicial opinions. Rather, they were open-ended questions drawing upon competing views Americans developed after Independence about the sovereignty of the people and the ongoing role of the people to monitor the constitutional order that rested on their sovereign authority.
A similar distinction was drawn by British constitutional scholar A.V. Dicey in assessing Britain's unwritten constitution. Dicey noted a difference between the "conventions of the constitution" and the "law of the constitution". The "essential distinction" between the two concepts was that the law of the constitution was made up of "rules enforced or recognised by the Courts", making up "a body of 'laws' in the proper sense of that term." In contrast, the conventions of the constitution consisted "of customs, practices, maxims, or precepts which are not enforced or recognised by the Courts" but "make up a body not of laws, but of constitutional or political ethics".
Constitutionalism has been the subject of criticism for its previous ignorance of economic issues but this criticism is now taken into account by the development of constitutional economics.
Constitutional economics is a field of economics and constitutionalism and describes and analyzes the specific interrelationships between constitutional issues and the structure and functioning of the economy. The term “constitutional economics” was used by American economist James M. Buchanan as a name for a new academic sub-discipline. Buchanan received in 1986 the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his "development of the contractual and constitutional bases for the theory of economic and political decision-making". Buchanan rejects "any organic conception of the state as superior in wisdom, to the individuals who are its members". This philosophical position is, in fact, the very subject matter of constitutional economics.
A constitutional economics approach allows for a combined economic and constitutional analysis, helping to avoid a unidimensional understanding. Buchanan believes that a constitution, intended for use by at least several generations of citizens, must be able to adjust itself for pragmatic economic decisions and to balance interests of the state and society against those of individuals and their constitutional rights to personal freedom and private happiness. Constitutional economics draws substantial inspiration from the reformist attitude which is characteristic of Adam Smith's vision, and that Buchanan’s concept can be considered the modern-day counterpart to what Smith called "the science of legislation".
Concurrently with the rise of academic research in the field of constitutional economics in the U.S. in the 1980s, the Supreme Court of India for almost a decade had been encouraging public interest litigation on behalf of the poor and oppressed by using a very broad interpretation of several articles of the Indian Constitution. This is a vivid example of a de facto practical application of the methodology of constitutional economics.
The Russian school of constitutional economics was created in the early 21st century with the idea that constitutional economics allows for a combined economic and constitutional analysis in the legislative (especially budgetary) process, thus helping to overcome arbitrariness in the economic and financial decision-making: for instance, when military expenses (and the like) dwarf the budget spending on education and culture. In the English language, the word "constitution" possesses a whole number of meanings, encompassing not only national constitutions as such, but also charters of public organizations, unwritten rules of various clubs, informal groups, etc. The Russian model of constitutional economics, originally intended for transitional and developing countries, focuses entirely on the concept of the state constitution. In 2006, the Russian Academy of Sciences officially recognized constitutional economics as a separate academic sub-discipline. Since many countries with transitional political and economic systems continue to treat their constitutions as abstract legal documents disengaged from the economic policy of the state, the practice of constitutional economics becomes there a decisive prerequisite for democratic development of the state and society.
Used descriptively, the concept of constitutionalism can refer chiefly to the historical struggle for constitutional recognition of the people's right to "consent" and certain other rights, freedoms, and privileges.
American constitutionalism has been defined as a complex of ideas, attitudes and patterns elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from the people, and is limited by a body of fundamental law. These ideas, attitudes and patterns, according to one analyst, derive from "a dynamic political and historical process rather than from a static body of thought laid down in the eighteenth century".
In U.S. history, constitutionalism, in both its descriptive and prescriptive sense, has traditionally focused on the federal constitution. Indeed, a routine assumption of many scholars has been that understanding "American constitutionalism" necessarily entails the thought that went into the drafting of the federal constitution and the American experience with that constitution since its ratification in 1789.
There is a rich tradition of state constitutionalism that offers broader insight into constitutionalism in the United States. While state constitutions and the federal constitution operate differently as a function of federalism from the coexistence and interplay of governments at both a national and state level, they all rest on a shared assumption that their legitimacy comes from the sovereign authority of the people or popular sovereignty. This underlying premise, embraced by the American revolutionaries with the Declaration of Independence unites American constitutional tradition.
Both experience with state constitutions before and after the federal constitution as well as the emergence and operation of the latter reflect an ongoing struggle over the idea that all governments in America rested on the sovereignty of the people for their legitimacy.
The United Kingdom is perhaps the best instance of constitutionalism in a country that has an uncodified constitution. A variety of developments in 17th century England, including "the protracted struggle for power between King and Parliament was accompanied by an efflorescence of political ideas in which the concept of countervailing powers was clearly defined," led to a well-developed polity with multiple governmental and private institutions that counter the power of the state.
The recent move of the Japanese government for revisions of its 1947 constitution under Shinzō Abe's administration is criticized as anticonstitutionalist in the sense that the new constitution would impose obligations on citizens rather than protect their human rights.
From the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth utilized the liberum veto, a form of unanimity voting rule, in its parliamentary deliberations. The "principle of liberum veto played an important role in [the] emergence of the unique Polish form of constitutionalism." This constraint on the powers of the monarch were significant in making the "[r]ule of law, religious tolerance and limited constitutional government... the norm in Poland in times when the rest of Europe was being devastated by religious hatred and despotism."
The prescriptive approach to constitutionalism addresses what a constitution should be. Two observations might be offered about its prescriptive use.
Starting with the proposition that "'Constitutionalism' refers to the position or practice that government be limited by a constitution, usually written," analysts take a variety of positions on what the constitution means. For instance, they describe the document as a document that may specify its relation to statutes, treaties, executive and judicial actions, and the constitutions or laws of regional jurisdictions. This prescriptive use of Constitutionalism is also concerned with the principles of constitutional design, which includes the principle that the field of public action be partitioned between delegated powers to the government and the rights of individuals, each of which is a restriction of the other, and that no powers be delegated that are beyond the competence of government.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls "the first constitution of its kind in Europe", was in effect for only a year. It was designed to redress longstanding political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditional system of "Golden Liberty". The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom.
Constitutionalist was also a label used by some independent candidates in UK general elections in the early 1920s. Most of the candidates were former Liberal Party members, and many of them joined the Conservative Party soon after being elected. The best known Constitutionalist candidate was Winston Churchill in the 1924 UK general election.
After the democratically elected government of president Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic was deposed, the Constitutionalist movement was born in the country. As opposed to said movement, the Anticonstitutionalist movement was also born. Bosch had to depart to Puerto Rico after he was deposed. His first leader was Colonel Rafael Tomás Fernández Domínguez, and he wanted Bosch to come back to power once again. Colonel Fernández Domínguez was exiled to Puerto Rico where Bosch was. The Constitutionalists had a new leader: Colonel Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó.
Legal scholar Jeremy Waldron contends that constitutionalism is often undemocratic:
Constitutions are not just about retraining and limiting power; they are about the empowerment of ordinary people in a democracy and allowing them to control the sources of law and harness the apparatus of government to their aspirations. That is the democratic view of constitutions, but it is not the constitutionalist view.... Of course, it is always possible to present an alternative to constitutionalism as an alternative form of constitutionalism: scholars talk of "popular constitutionalism" or "democratic constitutionalism."... But I think it is worth setting out a stark version of the antipathy between constitutionalism and democratic or popular self-government, if only because that will help us to measure more clearly the extent to which a new and mature theory of constitutional law takes proper account of the constitutional burden of ensuring that the people are not disenfranchised by the very document that is supposed to give them their power.
Constitutionalism has also been the subject of criticism by Murray Rothbard, who attacked constitutionalism as incapable of restraining governments and does not protect the rights of citizens from their governments:
[i]t is true that, in the United States, at least, we have a constitution that imposes strict limits on some powers of government. But, as we have discovered in the past century, no constitution can interpret or enforce itself; it must be interpreted by men. And if the ultimate power to interpret a constitution is given to the government's own Supreme Court, then the inevitable tendency is for the Court to continue to place its imprimatur on ever-broader powers for its own government. Furthermore, the highly touted "checks and balances" and "separation of powers" in the American government are flimsy indeed, since in the final analysis all of these divisions are part of the same government and are governed by the same set of rulers.
The scope and limits of constitutionalism in Muslim countries have attracted growing interest in recent years. Authors such as Ann E. Mayer define Islamic constitutionalism as "constitutionalism that is in some form based on Islamic principles, as opposed to constitutionalism that has developed in countries that happen to be Muslim but that has not been informed by distinctively Islamic principles". However, the concrete meaning of the notion remains contested among Muslim as well as Western scholars. Influential thinkers like Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl, but also younger ones like Asifa Quraishi and Nadirsyah Hosen combine classic Islamic law with modern constitutionalism. The constitutional changes initiated by the Arab spring movement have already brought into reality many new hybrid models of Islamic constitutionalism.