HOW DEMOCRATIC IS THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION?

Robert Alan Dahl, Author . Yale Univ. $19.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-300-09218-9

In this slim, accessible volume, Yale political science professor emeritus Dahl (On Democracy) takes a critical look at our Constitution and why we continue to uphold it, though it is "a document produced more than two centuries ago by a group of fifty-five mortal men, actually signed by only thirty-nine… and adopted in only thirteen states." As an instrument for truly democratic government, Dahl argues, it fails. With insufficient models to guide them and a distrust of unfettered democracy, the Framers allowed several "undemocratic elements" in: slavery was accepted and suffrage effectively limited to white men. But Dahl saves his most potent criticism for two provisions that have remained unchanged: the electoral college and the Senate, both of which tie votes to geography rather than population, thereby skewing political power toward coalitions of smaller states whose interests may not necessarily coincide with the nation's as a whole. And as the 2000 presidential election illustrated, the electoral college can frustrate the will of the majority. Perhaps the most enlightening aspect of Dahl's critique is his comparison of our system with those of other stable democracies. In his view, countries with proportional representation—which typically results in multi-party states and coalition governments—offer a purer form of democratic equality, while our structure frequently supports, for example, policies beneficial to the most powerful lobbyists, rather than the greatest number of citizens. This book originated as a series of lectures at Yale and, as a result, the argument is abbreviated and clear. While Dahl concedes that he has occasionally oversimplified, his intention is not to write a political treatise but to encourage American citizens to change, if not the Constitution, then at least "the way we think about it"—and at that, he should have success. (Mar. 19)

Reviewed on: 03/11/2002
Release date: 02/01/2002
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-0-300-09524-1
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