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the Complete Review
the complete review - law

How Democratic Is
the American Constitution ?

Robert A. Dahl

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To purchase How Democratic Is the American Constitution ?

Title: How Democratic Is the American Constitution ?
Author: Robert A. Dahl
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 162 pages
Availability: How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? - US
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How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? - India
  • Parts of this book were given as a series of Castle Lectures in 2000

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Our Assessment:

A- : good overview, raising important questions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 1/7/2002 George Scialabba
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/5/2002 Gordon S. Wood
The New Yorker . 29/7/2002 Hendrik Hertzberg
TLS . 14/3/2003 Stein Ringen

  From the Reviews:
  • "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. (...) 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." - George Scialabba, The American Prospect

  • "Although Dahl has no hope whatever that we will make any substantial democratic changes in our constitutional system in the immediate future, he nonetheless wants to open up discussion of the Constitution and its shortcomings, a discussion he hopes may, in time, lead to something. (....) Dahl's powerful indictment of our constitutional structure seems unduly pessimistic and overwrought and sometimes limited as well." - Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

  • "How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? falls somewhere between a little book and a big pamphlet (.....) Perhaps because it was written to be spoken, it is conversational, informal, and relaxed. (...) Dahl can be forgiven this one little flourish of sentimentality. As he knows very well -- and has written a book to prove -- our system is a lot less democratic than it should be." - Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker

  • "Dahl does not believe that much can be changed in the text, but he wants to change "the way we think about our Constitution". To that effect, he sets out to undermine its authority. (...) Judged by today's standards of democracy, Dahl finds at least three serious defects" - Stein Ringen, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The American Constitution is often invoked as the foundation of American democracy, yet aspects of it are often taken for granted. Robert Dahl's book is a useful reminder that the American Constitution is far from the only possible basis for democratic system -- and that it may, indeed, be far from an ideal one.
       Dahl considers the Constitution in the light of the historical circumstances surrounding its creation. The Constitution was not entirely conceived in a democratic vacuum, but certainly the Framers had few examples to rely on in establishing a democratic form of government. They also clearly failed in some respects -- most notably in the treatment of slavery (about as undemocratic an institution as one can imagine), but also, as Dahl shows, in several other significant respects -- several of which, unlike slavery, have not been corrected over the past two hundred plus years.
       Beginning with the Framers, Dahl does a nice job of quickly explaining the historical roots of the different aspects -- especially those that can be seen as undemocratic -- of the Constitution. It is well worth remembering that the American democratic system was, in many respects, far from democratic even as we now accept it in the not too distant past -- senators were only elected by popular vote (as opposed to by state legislatures) as of 1913 (the Seventeenth Amendment), women only got the vote in 1919 (the Nineteenth Amendment), and 18 to 20 year-olds only got the vote in 1971 (Twenty-Sixth Amendment). Other undemocratic aspects still remain -- some, as Dahl convincingly explains, unlikely ever to change (the disproportionate representation that the US Senate has, for example).
       Dahl notes that essentially no other country has adopted the American constitutional system, despite its supposed success -- a fact that no doubt comes as a great surprise to many Americans.
       In judging the success of the American system, Dahl also compares it to the twenty-two other countries "in which the basic democratic political institutions have functioned without interruption (...) since 1950". (India just failed to make the grade, and most of the rest -- save Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Israel -- are Western European.) Among the notable differences between the US and other democracies: strong federalism (found in only a few other democracies), unequal representation (specifically in the US Senate -- among the most unequal institutions around), first-past-the-post elections (as opposed to the far more popular proportional representation), and the institution of the presidency (except for Costa Rica all other democracies have an executive (the prime minister) chosen by the national legislature rather than a popularly elected president).
       Dahl shows that democracy comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and he compares the benefits and drawbacks -- especially in terms of the ultimate goal of democratic representation. Other countries, with very different systems, have also had success -- and arguably they've had considerably more success than the US. The American system, for example, makes for a two-party system (whereas proportional representation is likely to lead to multiple parties) -- which often also leads to a winner-loser division: majority rule rather than consensus rule.
       Particularly problematic is the unequal representation the Senate affords -- since every state gets two representatives the inhabitants of California get far less representation than, say, the citizens of North Dakota. While some disagree, Dahl finds no compelling reason why such unequal representation should be permitted. (As Dahl also points out: the rules for amending the Constitution make it practically unthinkable that this will ever be changed.)
       Other questionable aspects of the Constitution include the bizarre Electoral College, used to select the American president. Dahl explains how (and why it came about) -- as well it's almost immediate failure. He also shows its "inherent democratic defects" -- which include the too-common occurrence of a candidate who receives the greatest number of votes not becoming president (most recently allowing George jr. Bush to take the White House).

       Dahl's book is a broad overview, touching upon the most significant democratic (and undemocratic) aspects of the Constitution and raising questions as to how these arose and whether these can (and might and should) be changed. He explores a variety of viewpoints, and while he does make firm suggestions he allows for (and encourages) debate. Particularly useful is his comparison of the American system with other democratic systems (something Americans generally have no idea about), showing that viable alternatives can and do exist.
       How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? is both a useful history lesson and a useful public policy text, raising questions that all American citizens and voters should be aware of. The presentation is very clear, the discussion well-reasoned and inclusive (considering a variety of possible interpretations). Dahl does not go in great depth, and so there is some simplification, but as an introductory text on this very important subject it can be highly recommended.

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How Democratic Is the American Constitution ?: Reviews: U.S. Constitution: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Robert Alan Dahl live 1915 to 2014. He taught at Yale University.

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