Constitutionalism is a concept in political theory that explains that a government does not derive its power from itself, but gains its power as the result of there being a set of written laws that give the governing body certain powers. This concept is in sharp opposition to monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships, in which the power does not derive from a pre-drawn legal document. In a monarchy, the power is derived as an inalienable right of the king or queen. In a theocracy, all of the power of a governing party is derived from a set of religious beliefs, which are thought to exist as a result of the will of God, and in a dictatorship, the power is derived from the will of a single or group of people and their ideology, which does not necessarily represent the will of the people.
Constitutionalism therefore naturally prescribes a system of government in which the government’s powers are limited. Government officials, whether elected or not, canot act against their own constitutions if they see fit. Constitutional law is the highest body of law in the land, which all citizens, including the government, are subjected to. Several nations around the world have adopted forms of constitutionalism in their governments.
,In the United States, not only does the constitution itself limit the power of the government, it prescribes that the three different branches of the government limit the powers of the other branches of government by imposing a system of checks and balances. For example, in the United States, the president, who is the chief of the executive branch of government, may not declare war on another nation without congressional approval. The United States Constitution was set up in this way to limit the power of any one branch of its government.
Another form of constitutionalism in the world exists in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Israel. These nations all have uncodified constitutions. An uncodified constitution is not a written constitution, but rather a system of unwritten laws, which depend heavily on legislative precedence and parliamentary procedure. Regardless of the lack of an actual physical document in which the supreme law of the land is used, the “constitution” may be referred to in court in these nations, to which the government themselves must also submit and cannot act against.
There is also a different interpretation and usage of the term constitutionalism in political discussion. In prescriptive constitutionalism, the concept focuses on “constitutional questions,” or differing opinions on what a constitution ought to have in its content. An example of this form of constitutionalism exists in American politics, whenever the differing sides of an political debate argue over whether or not the constitution ought to be amended, which the United States Constitution allows to occur.