Just because a government has a constitution, does that mean that the constitution has to be followed?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The answer to this is “absolutely not.”  A constitution is just a piece of paper.  It can only be enforced on the government if the people are willing to do so.  This means the government does not have to obey the constitution unless the people force it to do so.

A constitution sets the rules that a government is supposed to follow.  However, a government cannot be coerced by outside forces.  Only the government has the legitimate right to engage in violence in a given society.  There is no force higher than the government that can physically compel it to act in a certain way.  This means that there is no entity that can force the government to obey its constitution. 

As an example of this, we can say that there was a long time when the US government did not obey some parts of its constitution.  The Constitution of the US (specifically, the 14th Amendment) says that all Americans have to enjoy the equal protection of the law.  However, African Americans and other people of color were not treated equally by the government for decades after the 14th Amendment was ratified.  There was no entity that could force the US government to obey the 14th Amendment.

Constitutions are only relevant if the people force the government to obey them.  In the 1950s and 1960s, public protests showed the American government that the people wanted it to honor the 14th Amendment.  At that point, it started to do so.  It was only pressure from the public that could force the government to obey. 

Constitutions are not strong walls against government misbehavior.  The government can violate the constitution if the people allow it to.  Governments only have to obey their constitutions if their people force them to do so.