Between Power and Authority: Arendt on the Constitution and the CourtsMultiple Locations at Bard College Keynote Speaker: Peg Birmingham (DePaul University)
Organised by Nicholas Dunn (Bard College)
The U.S. Supreme Court today faces a crisis of legitimacy. More than half of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Court—the lowest in over three decades. Following a slate of rulings on abortion, affirmative action, student debt, and freedom of religion, an increasing number of Americans no longer believe the Court is impartial, viewing it as simply another partisan institution. As a result, many are calling for various reforms of the Court, including term limits and packing the court. At the same time, the Court has, even at this moment, has struck down racially motivated gerrymandering in Alabama and has refused to accept the Independent State Legislature Theory that would allow states to overturn the will of their voters. There is little doubt that politics is at play in the Supreme Court; at the same time, the Court still gives credence to the idea of the rule of law and not men.
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt places the American constitutional tradition at the center of her inquiry into the founding and preserving of political freedom. The success of the American Revolution, for her, consisted in two things: its unleashing of citizen power through the principle of federalist dispersion of power and its institutionalization of authority in the Supreme Court and the United States Constitution. Regarding the former, Arendt argues that the embrace of federalism allowed for the multiplication and flourishing of power within a stable system. Regarding the latter, Arendt offers an original reading of the Supreme Court as the successor of the Roman Senate. The Court's authority combined with the surprising fact that the Constitution came to be worshiped allowed the United States to achieve authority for its laws absent religious sanction. This authority tied together permanence and change, permitting the country to develop and grow while also maintaining order and stability. In short, the combination of power and authority that emerged from the worship of the United States Constitution became the modern condition for the possibility of founding free government.
This conference aims to bring together scholars of Arendt’s constitutional thought and those working in political and legal theory more broadly to pursue the following questions: Is the Supreme Court still a legal institution, one that wields and deserves the authority imbued by the rule of law? Is the Supreme Court simply an undemocratic institution of power? If the latter, should we abandon the charade that the Supreme Court is above politics? Or, should we work to uphold the reality and the illusion that the Court is a legal and not simply a political institution? Any answers to these questions request that we face what is lost if and when the Supreme Court is no longer recognized as a seat of authority. We are especially interested in papers that address: Arendt’s conception of power and/or authority, Arendt’s constitutional and/or legal theory, and the relevance of all of this for current discussions of the Supreme Court and constitutional politics.
Registration and Format
The event will take place in-person and will be free and open to the public. Please direct any questions to Nicholas Dunn ([email protected]).
The Annual Conference: What it's All About
Every year, students, thinkers, artists, writers gather at Bard College's Annandale campus for two days of exploration into a pressing contemporary issue. Our aim is to bring together speakers from diverse careers to think together - and often to disagree- in public.
The Center's annual conferences are known for bringing together speakers from diverse careers to think in public about the most important issues of our time. Previous conferences have explored the economic crisis, education, surveillance, and privacy. In conjunction with the conference, the center sponsors an annual student competition and a student debate.