The book How Democratic is the American Constitution? by Robert A. Dahl is a provocative examination of the American constitution. The book challenges the notions that most Americans hold regarding the sacred nature of the U.S. Constitution and its role as the foundation of Democracy. However, the circumstances under which it was written, and structure of the American government highlight numerous potentially undemocratic elements of the governing document when applied to modern day.
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Dahl’s underlying argument is that the legitimacy of the U.S. Constitution is derived from its utility as the document of democratic governance. He argues, “I am going to suggest that we begin to view our American Constitution as nothing more or less than a set of basic institutions and practices designed to the best of our abilities for the purpose of attaining democratic values” (Dahl, 2002, p. 3). The nature of American democracy is that the population is instilled with the sacredness of the Constitution. In modern day, no one is ever given the opportunity to challenge it or voice an opinion on its purposes as a governing document in any legally meaningful manner. Despite the reputation that the Constitution is a living document, amendments are nearly impossible to pass, burdened both by the bicameral legislature as well as the political status quo.
At the time of its conception, the Framers of the Constitution had no successful example of democratic political system. While the system did have basis of the Athenian city-states, the Framers quickly realized that the size and population of the growing United States would not be able to support a direct democracy. They were exploring a variety of systems and solutions. However, in the end, a significant portion of governing elements were implemented under significant pressure of both time, short-sightedness, and division that was not sorted out (only 11 of the 13 colonies at the time even voted on the document). As a result, a unique democratic experiment emerged, but the system is inherently flawed that no other democracy has chosen to copy it and the Constitution continuously demonstrates that it is outdated even on the basic principles of modern life such as population and demographics and equality.
Dahl describes several undemocratic aspects of the Constitution which can be categorizes as either social or governance, although they intertwine. One primary social concept is the tolerance of slavery from the initiation of the Constitution. It was necessary to ensure cooperation of Southern states who maintained slave-centered economies, but it is inherently wrong. It was eventually replaced with the Three-Fifths Compromise and later outlawed with the 13th amendment. Similarly, with suffrage for women, African Americans, and other minorities which were not protected, and even blatantly outlawed in the Constitution. While amendments later on began to address elements of freedoms and suffrage, the fact that the Constitution was officially written in such manner and allowed to officially exist is unheard of for a state document and highlights its flaws.
The Framers created the U.S. government as a representative democracy and a federal system, fearing both centralized power and direct democracy. However, it immediately creates multiple considerably undemocratic redundancies. The concept of bicameral representation is flawed, significantly reducing the possibility of legislation being passed when different parties control different chambers of Congress. Senators were originally chosen by state legislators, eventually being allowed to vote on in election. However, the concept of two votes per state in the chamber once again distances from the popular majority. Meanwhile, Congress is constrained in its ability to regulate economical or social issues. This goes against common practices in other democratic states where the judiciary holds less power but the legislative body which represents and answers to the people, has more control. Similarly, the position of the President as both a head of state and a chief executive is inherently conflicting and undemocratic when it comes to checks and balances, contrasting with other democracies where a prime minister differs from head of state. Dahl suggests that the Framers unintentionally created a framework which established a presidency that combined the roles of monarch and a prime minister into one, which is a significant amount of power and influence for one individual.
For example, Germany has a democratic system in Europe which most resembles the United States, but eliminates the multiple undemocratic redundancies. It has a bicameral legislation, the lower house which elects party members based on state population and ultimately creates and passes all policy. The consent of the upper house where each state gets 1 representative is only involved in issues that are involved directly with the states. The countries courts are independent and can rule laws as unconstitutional. However, half the judges are elected by the upper house and half by the lower house, ensuring that no one party or coalition can control the court’s composition, and each judge serves one non-renewable 12-year term. The prime minister is chosen by leading party or coalition, selected for the sole purpose of leading the legislative body and create policy. At any time, they are unable to do so, most modern democracies have an effective measure of removing the primes minister through a vote of no confidence, which is much easier to implement than an impeachment process.
Dahl is correct in stating that all these aspects of government were meant to insulate and protect from popular majorities. He writes, “a substantial number of the Framers believed that they must erect constitutional barriers to popular rule because the people would prove to be an unruly mob, a standing danger to law, to orderly government, and property rights” (Dahl, 2002, p. 24-25). It can be seen in the electoral college which is flawed by distancing the President from popular majority and disenfranchising voters. This approach ultimately highlights the undemocratic nature of the U.S. Constitution and American politics. It is not aimed at representing the people and majority, but rather the interests of few select groups. It is a perception which strongly conflicts with the generally accepted paradigm that the Constitution is the vital document of protecting rights. The Framer’s perspective has historically proven incorrect as the population generally supported law and orderly government. However, modern contexts demonstrate substantially these numerous undemocratic flaws of the original constitution.
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The elements discussed by Dahl regarding the undemocratic nature of the U.S. Constitution are eerily fitting to the current political situation (despite the book being written 18 years ago). Beginning with the electoral college, the past and current elections showed how undemocratic the process is. The 2016 election showed that despite having a massive popular vote lead of almost 3 million, Clinton lost tremendously by more than 80 electoral votes. This is in consideration that some electors broke rank and voted against state directives (another questionable element of the Constitution, essentially giving all power to electors, even if breaking rank is a rare occasion) (Johnson & Herskovitz, 2016). The electoral college creates disenfranchisement for voters by 1) concentrating all attention and effort from candidates during campaigning on battleground states and vital populations; 2) states that are heavily leaning towards one party or another (i.e. California – Democratic, North Dakota – Republican), essentially gives no voice to minority parties, either in Presidential or Congress races. The population is paying a toll of upholding a system that does not accurately represent the political diversity of states by allowing the ideological party in power, either Democrats and Republicans to swing policy towards their end of the political spectrum (Illing, 2020). In turn this creates further social division which is now extremely apparent and ravaging the country.
Modern politics in the United States has created a unique situation where an ideological minority (far-right conservatives) have accumulated the majority of power. Recent events in politics, beginning with atrocious behavior of President Trump and his impeachment by the House of Representatives to the dismantling of legislation by the previous democratic administration despite widespread opposition. These highlight how essentially powerful that minority has become without consequence to the people that the Constitution in principle has entailed. By insulating the Presidency and Congress from the people that Framers thought would be “mob-like” – the Constitution is now allowing a free reign of a Presidency and political party. Dahl highlights the power of the judiciary which does not receive any limits on power (or term for federal and Supreme court justices) and declare laws unconstitutional even if voted upon by Congress and signed by the President. The situation is farther exacerbated into the judicial branch, where the appointment of the recent justices, once again highlight the undemocratic nature of the system, where conservative Republicans are able to ram through justices to the Supreme Court once again with absolutely full opposition from Democrats and even a slight majority of the general population.
It can be argued that the current Presidency and state of American politics is abnormal, it is an outlier that has never occurred and may potentially not happen again. The U.S. has and will continue to be ‘The Great Experiment.’ However, it is the Trump presidency that fully demonstrated the absolute flaws of the current U.S. Constitution that once and again does not account for the popular votes or opinions, consistently disenfranchises voters through legal means such as gerrymandering and types of voter suppression, and has created an irresolvable ideological stalemate in Congress that even in times of emergency cannot pass effective legislation. If during previous centuries, there were major moves to amend the Constitution in meaningful ways, the current political system and climate indicates that this unilaterally impossible to do, something that Dahl continuously highlights.
In personal opinion, the division currently seen in the United States can be attributed to the undemocratic nature of its political system, that is being exacerbated by the fact that certain groups are taken advantage of the power while others are left behind. As discussed by Dahl (2002), the government in all its branches – the executive, legislative, and judiciary have become extremely powerful, and some such as the judiciary do not even answer to the electorate, while others such as the Senate often act without regard for the majority. Nevertheless, as noted by Dahl once more, no matter how undemocratic the nature of politics and current system of government is, it is highly unlikely that changes will be coming any time soon to amend the constitutional body or change the governing document which has become absolutely sacred in the minds of most Americans.
Dahl, R. A. (2002). How democratic is the American constitution? Yale University Press
Illing, S. (2020). A definitive case against the electoral college. Vox. Web.
Johnson, E. M., & Herksovitz, J. (2016). Trump wins Electoral College vote; a few electors break ranks. Reuters. Web.