How Democratic Is the American Constitution?

Book by Robert A. Dahl

Review by Tim King and Thom Hartmann, originally published at on April 8, 2004.

In How Democratic Is the American Constitution, Robert A. Dahl takes us deeper into the complexities of how and when the ideals of American democracy were framed, and shows us that this great document came about in a way that was not as orderly as one might think. And while this book would make excellent reading for any college political science course, (much of it is indeed taken from lectures), the writing style makes it very readable.

The author takes us on a fascinating historical journey through our nation’s early years. We learn that had Alexander Hamilton and Governor Morris of Pennsylvania had their way, we might have had a monarchy and a House of Lords. According to Dahl, the early framers debated these details out without much of a working model. 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, orderly government and to property rights. Contrary to these pessimistic appraisals, when American citizens were endowed with the opportunities to support demagogues and rabble rousers, they chose instead to support law, orderly government and property rights….A predominant number of American citizens were free farmers who stood to benefit from an orderly government dependent on their votes."

One of the first things that Mr. Dahl shows us is that democracy is not a static system but has changed and continues to change over time. In fact, even the authors of the constitution changed their views in the years following the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Dahl points out, for instance, that James Madison, at the time thirty-six years old, had not really finalized his constitutional ideas, particularly regarding suffrage and majority rule. Less than five years after the convention, Madison published a series of essays in The Gazette suggesting various steps that could be taken to overcome the dangers of political parties. And as late as 1821, Madison writes: "The right of suffrage is a fundamental article in republican (democratic) constitutions."

The framers of the constitution were repeatedly forced to compromise in order to complete the document. The idea of an electoral college, which became an issue in the 2000 election, is a good example. During most of the Constitutional Convention the framers believed that the best way to select a president would be for that person to be chosen by the national legislature. By unanimous vote, early in the Convention, this was the method the framers preferred. After three months of extensive debate the framers were most eager to conclude their work. But at the last minute, a new committee was formed to address this issue and Mr. Dahl quotes their conclusion directly from the document: "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to whole number of Senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in Congress." Thus the Electoral College was born. The author devotes considerable time to this issue, including the evolutionary developments that democratized the voting process over the years. He goes on to suggest some constitutional amendments that would correct the deficiencies including correcting the problems inherent in the "winner takes all" popular election system.

Another really interesting aspect of this book is the comparison with other democracies around the world. His tables and charts in the back of the book are tremendous. They compare both the characteristics and the performance of our constitutional system to other democratic systems. We are also given a thumbnail picture of democracy in the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. Early in the book we learn that Norway, Sweden and Denmark abolished their second chambers, deciding that bicameralism was no longer necessary. Indeed, even the House of Lords in England has had its power significantly reduced through time and as Dahl says, "The future of that ancient chamber remains in considerable doubt." The reasons for these bicameral considerations in the constitution have to do with providing for equal representation. Because he views democracy as not being static, he also is able to see that early attempts at providing equal representation have not worked as well as intended. He tells us that even Nebraska has abolished its second chamber. If nothing else, this book shows us that we are not the only game in town and that our systems of government can evolve and improve, especially if we develop a critical eye toward what is working and what is not.

Dahl calls our system "The American Hybrid." He believes that this "hybrid" has a number of important flaws though he is not particularly optimistic about our ability to change them. He cites examples that will be difficult to alter: inequality of representation in the Senate, more strongly defining our system as either consensual or majoritarian, keeping the Supreme Court from legislating partisan public policies and the problem of our making the American Presidency into a combination of chief executive and a monarch. Dahl is not quite as pessimistic regarding the electoral college where a major change could happen if each state were to "require their electoral votes to be allocated in proportion to the popular votes."

We are ultimately given two very good suggestions. One is that we demythologize this constitution that we hold in such high esteem. Americans do not question it easily. Its viability is not part of the public discourse. We should not be so petrified by our loyalty to it that we refuse to discuss and possibly repair its shortcomings.

His second suggestion is that we address the issue of political resources. We are now at a time in our democratic evolution when those with the most resources exert the greatest political power. Even the Supreme Court has supported this imbalance in its finding in the famous case of Buckley v. Valeo. The problems that Mr. Dahl discusses and the suggestions he makes for our nation and constitution will be difficult to address if we don’t tackle this political inequality.

This book should be required reading for every American citizen. In many ways it is a history lesson presented at a time when history holds the clues that we need. The constitution is only fifteen to twenty pages long, with another five to seven pages of amendments. That the framers were able to author such complicated and profound ideals with such economy of expression is an extraordinary accomplishment. But our constitution can reflect the democratic principles that we hold dear today only if we can look at it with the skill, integrity and courage that our ancestors exhibited at that Constitutional Convention not so long ago.

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