Designing Constitutions

Designing Constitutions

I previously posted (here, here, and here) on a comparative politics simulation that two undergraduate students are developing for my introductory class. The simulation began this week and will wrap up next Tuesday. I thought I’d share a few first impressions of the simulation. In a future post, I’ll ask the students who designed the simulation to share their perspective.

As a brief summary of the simulation, each class is divided into four fictional countries. Participants were provided with a background packet with details on the region’s history and geopolitics, as well as one-page summaries of each country. The first task was to write a constitution for their country. The countries each have significant ethnic diversity, are relatively poor, and have a history of conflict. Other factors varied, with some being resource-rich and others not. Students had free reign in terms of designing the institutions of their country through the constitution process.

Based on the constitutions, as well as the conversations I overheard as I checked in with the groups, the students are explicitly applying course materials to the task at hand. In fact, Lijphart’s “Constitutional Design for Divided Societies” was used extensively. The students recognized the challenges for creating effective democracy – and a few groups seriously considered dictatorships for stability – and thought about how institutional structures could mitigate those problems. It was the learning objective I had tied to this stage of the simulation and I was pleased to see it play out.

After writing their constitutions, groups assigned powers to specific roles and set a budget. It was only after groups completed these three products that students were assigned roles and ethnic identities. This meant the initial steps were done under a “veil of ignorance”. By doing so, this simulation eliminated the gridlock that would have likely occurred if students were aware of their identities when designing the country. (Of course, there is pedagogical value in designing the simulation such that identities were known and this step was allowed to be long and contentious, but there were other things we wanted to do in this simulation.) As it was, the “veil of ignorance” led to interesting discussions because students were all aware that they could be in the minority once roles were revealed. This encouraged them to try to develop what they saw as “fair” systems. Although most applied principles from Lijphart – namely, creating federal parliamentary systems with proportional representation and power-sharing agreements – by and large, the students created strong central governments. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

More next time!