How Democratic Is the American Constitution?
Robert A. Dahl
Robert A. Dahl was a Political Scientist at Yale University and worked on a pluralist theory of democracy. He has published 25 books. Dahl delivered parts of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? as a series of lectures in Yale's Program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. The book begins with the question "Why should Americans uphold our Constitution?" The initial answer is that a group of very smart men wrote the thing in 1787 and we have lived under it reasonably well ever since. Dahl raises the point that only 55 men wrote the document and of those 55 only 39 signed the document and a fair number of those owned slaves and the votes of fewer than 2,000 men lead to the ultimate ratification of the document. Those of us living today have had very little say in the document. Dahl explores how well our Constitution meets present day democratic standards, he compares our system with the systems in other democratic countries and asks how well our systems supports our democratic goals compared with other countries' systems. Dahl argues that the connection between political equality, rights, liberties and opportunities is fundamental to democracy and examines how well our system protects and advances these goals compared to others. Dahl corrects our view of the constitution - it was not written by the "founding fathers" - only 8 of the 55 delegates at the convention signed the Declaration of Independence - he argues we should call them the "framers of the constitution." Dahl also takes on the argument that the Framers intended to form a republic rather than a democracy. Dahl provides an extensive argument that establishes that this argument is mistaken. Dahl also the Constitution's 7 shortcomings: slavery, suffrage, the election of the president (the electoral college), choosing senators, equal representation in the senate, judicial power, and congressional power. He discusses how these shortcomings undermined democracy and discusses the amendments that moved the Constitution in a more democratic direction starting with the Bil of Rights. The Constitution's Framers did not anticipate the emergence of political parties. Dahl argues that the formation of political parties stimulated changes in political practices and institutions that moved the country in a more democratic direction. Although Americans assume that our Constitution is a model for the rest of the world, Dahl points out that no other democratic country has used our constitution as a model. He argues that many other countries better serve the interests of their citizens as political equals. Dahl identifies several defects in the electoral college: 1) the candidate with the most popular votes may fail to be chosen president, 2) winning the presidency with a minority of the popular votes has been too common, 3) he suggests that something like a run off election between the top candidates or something like ranked choice voting might better reflect the voters' desires, and 4) the electoral college unequally represents voters. The senate is also a citadel of the unequal representation of voters. Dahl points out that when comparing the United States with other democratic countries on metrics such as the rate of incarceration, the ration of rich to poor, economic growth, social expenditures, energy efficiency, and foreign aid we rank near the bottom. He argues that we need to stop thinking of our Constitution as a sacred document and start thinking of it as a tool for achieving democratic goals. Dahl examines what kind of Constitution we should have to uphold our democratic goals and then reflects on our prospects for a more democratic constitution. He identifies the federal system, the current presidency, inequality in representation, and the electoral college as barriers to a more democratic system. He also argues that most democracies are either majortarian or consensual and we have appropriated the worst traits of both. Dahl doubts that significant change is possible but he discusses small reforms that might improve the level of democracy in the United States. All lovers of democracy should read this book. This important and very readable book should be assigned reading in upper level high school and introductory college classes. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it.