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How Democratic Is the American Constitution?

How Democratic Is the American Constitution?

Robert A. Dahl
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nptxj
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  • Book Info
    How Democratic Is the American Constitution?
    Book Description:

    In this provocative book, one of our most eminent political scientists poses the question, "Why should we uphold our constitution?" The vast majority of Americans venerate the American Constitution and the principles it embodies, but many also worry that the United States has fallen behind other nations on crucial democratic issues, including economic equality, racial integration, and women's rights. Robert Dahl explores this vital tension between the Americans' belief in the legitimacy of their constitution and their belief in the principles of democracy.Dahl starts with the assumption that the legitimacy of the American Constitution derivessolelyfrom its utility as an instrument of democratic governance. Dahl demonstrates that, due to the context in which it was conceived, our constitution came to incorporate significant antidemocratic elements. Because the Framers of the Constitution had no relevant example of a democratic political system on which to model the American government, many defining aspects of our political system were implemented as a result of short-sightedness or last-minute compromise. Dahl highlights those elements of the American system that are most unusual and potentially antidemocratic: the federal system, the bicameral legislature, judicial review, presidentialism, and the electoral college system.The political system that emerged from the world's first great democratic experiment is unique-no other well-established democracy has copied it. How does the American constitutional system function in comparison to other democratic systems? How could our political system be altered to achieve more democratic ends? To what extent did the Framers of the Constitution build features into our political system that militate against significant democratic reform?Refusing to accept the status of the American Constitution as a sacred text, Dahl challenges us all to think critically about the origins of our political system and to consider the opportunities for creating a more democratic society.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13372-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: Fundamental Questions
    (pp. 1-6)

    My aim in this brief book is not to propose changes in the American Constitution but to suggest changes in the way wethinkabout our constitution. In that spirit, I’ll begin by posing a simple question:Why should we Americans uphold our Constitution?

    Well, an American citizen might reply, it has been our constitution ever since it was written in 1787 by a group of exceptionally wise men and was then ratified by conventions in all the states.¹ But this answer only leads to a further question.

    To understand what lies behind that next question, I want to recall...

  5. CHAPTER 2 What the Framers Couldn’t Know
    (pp. 7-40)

    Wise as the framers were, they were necessarily limited by their profound ignorance.

    I say this with no disrespect, for like many others I believe that among the Framers were many men of exceptional talent and public virtue. Indeed, I regard James Madison as our greatest political scientist and his generation of political leaders as perhaps our most richly endowed with wisdom, public virtue, and devotion to lives of public service. In the months and weeks before the Constitutional Convention assembled “on Monday the 14th of May, A.D. 1787. [sic] and in the eleventh year of the independence of the...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Constitution as a Model: An American Illusion
    (pp. 41-72)

    Many americans appear to believe that our constitution has been a model for the rest of the democratic world.¹ Yet among the countries most comparable to the United States and where democratic institutions have long existed without breakdown, not one has adopted our American constitutional system. It would be fair to say that without a single exception they have all rejected it. Why?

    Before I explore that question, I need to clarify two matters. As you may have noticed, rather than speaking simply of “the constitution,” I’ve sometimes used the phrase “the constitutional system.” I do so because I want...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Electing the President
    (pp. 73-90)

    On the night of november 7, 2000, a drama opened in the United States that absorbed the attention of millions of people until the curtain came down six weeks later. The nation was focused once again on an anomalous institution that had originated in the Framers’ search for a suitable way to elect the new republic’s chief executive. This was the electoral college, by means of which the presidency was won—not for the first time and perhaps not the last—by a candidate with fewer votes than his rival.¹

    As we saw in the previous chapter, the Framers were baffled...

  8. CHAPTER 5 How Well Does the Constitutional System Perform?
    (pp. 91-120)

    Let me repeat the question I raised at the beginning: Why should we uphold the American Constitution? One response might be: Because it performs better than any feasible alternative.¹

    If the unique properties of our constitutional system enable it to perform better than the systems of other democratic countries, then it merits our pride and confidence. If these peculiarities don’t matter, perhaps we should ignore them. But if it performs worse, then shouldn’t we begin to consider possible changes?

    Questions about the relative performance of different constitutional systems are easy to pose but extraordinarily difficult to answer responsibly. True, we...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Why Not a More Democratic Constitution?
    (pp. 121-140)

    I began by posing this question: Why should we Americans uphold our Constitution? Let me now change the question slightly: What kind of constitutionshouldwe feel obliged to uphold?

    I mean, of course, an American constitution—not necessarily our present Constitution, but a constitution that, after careful and prolonged deliberation, we and our fellow citizens conclude is best designed to serve our fundamental political ends, goals, and values.

    I am well aware that in expressing reservations about the Constitution, as I have in these essays, I may be judged guilty of casting stones at a national icon. “From the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Some Reflections on the Prospects for a More Democratic Constitution
    (pp. 141-158)

    In a 1987 survey that revealed strong support among Americans for the Constitution on the whole, the results of one question stand out. When respondents were asked, “How good a job has [the system of government established by the Constitution] done in treating all people equally?” Fifty-one percent answered that it had done a bad job, 8 percent expressed no opinion, and a minority of 41 percent said that it had done a good job.¹

    If we want to enjoy a system of government that performs better in treating all people equally—at least in their roles as democratic citizens...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Further Reflections: Changing the Unwritten Constitution
    (pp. 159-178)

    Because some of the most undemocratic features of the Constitution are fixed into that document by provisions that are virtually impossible to alter, at the end of the last chapter I expressed “a measured pessimism” about the prospects for significant change.

    Perhaps I was too pessimistic. Changes that would make ourwrittenconstitution more democratic may not be politically feasible. But we could make changes in ourunwrittenconstitution much more readily.

    I’m aware that the distinction between our formal or written constitution and our informal or unwritten constitution may be puzzling to some of my American readers. Unlike the...

  12. Appendix A: On the Terms “Democracy” and “Republic”
    (pp. 179-184)
  13. Appendix B: Tables and Figures
    (pp. 185-194)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-214)
  15. For Further Reading
    (pp. 215-216)
  16. Index
    (pp. 217-224)