State authority is not concentrated in one place, neither at the top nor the bottom, neither on the left nor the right; instead, it is distributed widely. We participate in it in many ways, not only passively and enduringly but also actively. The constitution does not live only in the parliaments of the Federal Republic, not only in the states and local communities, not only in the governments and administrations. In addition, the courts serve as the “third power,” particularly those that check and balance the legislature and the executive; they have proven amazingly effective in keeping political power within its limits. Social organizations, in all their diversity, exist and work as guaranteed by the basic freedom of association; they represent the powers of a living constitution, even if they are not aware of it. It is up to the political institutions to respect their rights and to keep their enthusiasms from running roughshod. Every collective bargaining session is part of the living constitution; and the autonomy of the bargaining agents, who require no intervention by the authorities, itself represents a piece of the state. Not to mention the simultaneous conversation between the many voices of so-called public opinion that grows out of the freedom of speech and information. Citizens’ initiatives and demonstrations are also part of a living constitution: the state is present not only in the squads of police officers who escort them and assure the peacefulness required by the constitution.
It is a good constitution that provides for all these things and for a powerful leadership. We do not have to be afraid to praise the Basic Law. At any particular moment we might censure the government, charge the opposition with being too weak, resent the flood of laws passed by the parliament, find spirit and imagination generally lacking in the parties, feel burdened by bureaucracy, and consider the trade unions too demanding and the reporters too intrusive – the constitution allows all of this to be improved; it advises and encourages us to improve it. A certain degree of moderate dissatisfaction serves to benefit the state. It doesn’t diminish the loyalty that is due the constitution. But the constitution must be defended against declared enemies – that is a patriotic duty.
Source: Dolf Sternberger, “Verfassungspatriotismus” [“Constitutional Patriotism”] (1979), in Schriften [Writings]. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1992, vol. 10, pp. 13-16.
Translation: Allison Brown