The American Prospect magazine, July 2002
a review of the book
How Democratic Is the
by Robert Dahl, Yale University Press
In The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing
Democracy (1996), Daniel Lazare points out that the U.S. Constitution
was adopted unconstitutionally. The Articles of Confederation,
our first governing compact, contained a provision that any amendment
would require the consent of all 13 states. Yet the Articles were
supplanted without unanimous consent of the states. That's because
Article VII of the new Constitution provided that it would take
effect if ratified by only nine of the 13 states. Wasn't Article
VII therefore in violation of the original governing document?
In Federalist 40, Madison dismissed this objection. It would
be "absurd," he declared, to "subject the fate
of twelve States to the perverseness or corruption of a thirteenth."
Surely this was obvious to "every citizen who has felt for
the wounded honor and prosperity of his country." End of
discussion. So much for the original intention of those who framed
the Articles of Confederation.
The new Constitution contained an equally "absurd"
provision. According to Article V, "no State, without its
Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."
Each state, regardless of population, was to have two senators.
As a result, two centuries later half the U.S. population sends
18 senators to Washington while the other half sends 82. Twenty
senators represent 54 percent of the population; another 20 represent
less than 3 percent. California gets two senators; the 20 least
populous states, which combined have roughly the same number of
people as California, get 40 senators. Senators elected by 11
percent of the population can kill proposed legislation with a
filibuster; senators elected by as little as 5 percent of the
population can block a constitutional amendment. For two centuries
this blatantly undemocratic institution- perhaps the most un-representative
legislative body in the world," Lazare observes-has survived
without serious challenge, thanks partly to elite (especially
slaveholder) self-interest and partly to popular Constitution-worship.
But by the logic of Federalist 40, a people in earnest about equal
representation for all, and therefore determined to reform the
Senate, ought not be obstructed.
The composition of the Senate is not the only undemocratic
feature of the Constitution, as Robert Dahl reminds us in How
Democratic Is the American Constitution? Of the others, the most
flagrant is the electoral college. There is nothing to be said
for this institution. It has no other purpose or result than to
frustrate equal representation for all citizens, and its effect
on our political history has been calamitous. It was rejected
several times at the Constitutional Convention until it slipped
by on a last minute vote. It has never functioned as intended,
i.e., as a deliberative body. Within a dozen years it had caused
a constitutional crisis (the deadlocked election of 1800). Several
decades later, after another deadlocked election in 1876, electoral
college horse-trading resulted in the abandonment of federal efforts
to enforce civil rights in the South. In four presidential elections,
including the last one, the candidate with the greatest number
of popular votes was not chosen as president. Overwhelming majorities
regularly tell pollsters that the electoral college should be
abolished. Seven hundred proposals to reform or abolish it have
been introduced in the House, the most recent of which in 1989
passed with an 83 percent majority. As always, the Senate blocked
any action. Quo usque tandem?
How Democratic Is the American Constitution? is a short book,
not only because Dahl is a masterly expositor but also because
the case against Constitution-worship is not very difficult to
make. To begin with, the early republic did not worship it. The
framers were a gifted and experienced group-though some, such
as Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, were not particularly
well-disposed toward democracy. But divisions among them were
sharp: Even Hamilton, for example, said that giving each state
the same number of senators "shocks too much the ideas of
justice and every human feeling." And some of the most eminent
among them, such as Elbridge Gerry and Edmund Randolph, refused
to sign or signed only with grave reservations. The debate in
the country over ratification was extremely vigorous (see the
two splendid Library of America volumes on the subject). The decision
was not made by popular vote but by elected delegates, more than
a third of whom voted against ratification. In short, our forebears
did not in the least regard the Constitution as an inspired deliverance
Moreover, there were some distinguished second thoughts. Conservatives
endlessly cite Madison's Federalist 10 on the dangers of faction
and the need to curb popular majorities. But as Dahl points out,
Madison soon reconsidered. Within a few years he was writing in
an anti-Federalist journal that "in every political society,
parties are unavoidable" ("a natural offspring of Freedom,"
as he put it still later), and that political competition could
be made fairer "by withholding unnecessary opportunities
from a few to increase the inequality of property by an immoderate,
and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches," and
"by the silent operation of the laws, which, without violating
the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state
of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort."
Madison the radical!
Other democracies do not particularly admire our Constitution,
at least to the extent of imitating it. In a chapter titled "The
Constitution as a Model: An American Illusion," Dahl notes
that "among the countries most comparable to the United States"-he
lists 22-"and where democratic institutions have long existed
without breakdown, not one has adopted our American constitutional
system." Our combination of an executive branch independent
of the legislature, a "first-past-the-post" electoral
system that practically rules out third parties and coalition
governments, extensive judicial review of federal legislative
enactments, and strong bicameralism with highly unequal representation
in the upper chamber is unique.
So ours is an inefficient and undemocratic system. The Senate
and the electoral college merit no further discussion. First-past-the-post,
or strictly majoritarian, elections are also plainly unfair. In
theory, at least, a party that gained a one-vote plurality in
every election district would win 100 percent of the seats in
the legislature-an obvious absurdity. In practice, voters know
that a vote for any except the two major parties is likely to
be "wasted," producing no representation. This is, of
course, convenient for the two major parties, but it leaves some
(possibly many) voters unrepresented. A proportional system in
which each party's legislative membership corresponds to its percentage
of votes received would reflect the popular will more accurately
without, Dahl contends, any loss of effectiveness. All the established
democracies except Canada and (for the time being) the United
Kingdom have a proportional, or "consensus," system
rather than a majoritarian one.
The steady growth of presidential powers is also an American
exception, Dahl contends. Actually, the U.S. government was not
designed to have such a powerful chief executive. For all the
talk then and now about the separation of powers, Dahl writes,
those who framed and ratified the Constitution believed that "the
only legitimate representative of the popular will was the Congress,
not the president." The "myth of the presidential mandate"
is a subsequent creation. Policy-including foreign policy-was
(is) supposed to issue from the deliberations of a body of elected
lawmakers, not from one elected chief administrator in consultation
with his appointees. No other mature democracy, Dahl points out,
has a "single popularly elected chief executive with important
Regardless, the main question remains: Does our constitutional
system at least work well for us? Dahl is skeptical, though he
has to acknowledge the uncertain relevance of political arrangements
to social and economic indicators, as well as the difficulty of
comparing countries that differ in size and homogeneity. There's
not much data in the book, although its references are helpful
on this score. From the work of Arend Lijphart and other social
scientists Dahl cites, it is clear, at any rate, that majoritarian
democracies such as ours do not generally outperform consensus
democracies on such measures as voter satisfaction, accountability,
macroeconomic management, or the control of violence.
In any case, Dahl has not come to bury the Constitution, only
to undermine complacency about it. Besides, as he acknowledges
in the book's sobering conclusion, there's not much we can do.
The Constitution is virtually democracy-proof. A Supreme Court
that promulgates and upholds a Buckley v. Valeo (not to mention
a Bush v. Gore) is all too likely to find constitutional problems
with any serious move in the direction of popular sovereignty.
It is hard to imagine a Congress unified and determined enough
to reassert its primacy over the executive branch. And however
indefensible, the Senate in its present form is here to stay.
For all these reasons, Dahl avows a "measured pessimism"
about the prospects for a more democratic political system any
time soon. The only hope-a long-term one-is to help along the
evolution of a more democratic political culture. How? By trying
to "reduce the vast inequalities in the existing distribution
of political resources." I presume that by "resources"
he means information, experience, and money. Unfortunately this
intriguing suggestion comes in the book's penultimate paragraph
and receives no elaboration. That is disappointing; but then Dahl
has spent much of his career elaborating it in other books, many
of them as valuable as this one.
During that long career (he is now 87), Dahl has received
nearly every accolade for which a political scientist is eligible.
I can't forbear adding my mite of praise to the heap. Dahl's work
seems to me an admirable, even inspiring blend of normative and
analytical, citizenly and scholarly, generous and disinterested.
How Democratic Is the American Constitution.?, along with his
other books, such as Democracy and Its Critics and A Preface to
Economic Democracy, will continue for quite a while to remind
the rest of us, gently but persistently, that our professed ideal
of democratic equality requires a good deal more in the way of
practice than we seem to have noticed.
GEORGE SCIALABBA reviews books for The Boston Globe, the Boston
Review, and other publications.
Democracy in America