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The merit of our Constitution was, not that it promotes democracy, but checks it.
    -Horatio Seymour (1810-86)

Whatever else you may think of the Founders, you'd have to say that they were not inartful nor unthoughtful drafters of texts. So when we read the Preamble to the Constitution...:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. would seem safe to say that those were the ends they intended the Constitution to achieve. And as you look around America and the world today, you'd have to say that were reasonably successful. Indeed, if you look at our liberal democratic peers in Europe, Japan, and so forth--as they struggle with demographic implosion, social breakdown, sclerotic welfare states, stagnating economies, and often with increasingly undemocratic transnational schemes--you might even say our Founders and their Constitution were uniquely successful. But Robert A. Dahl wouldn't say the same.

Mr. Dahl's book proceeds from the odd assumption that the Constitution should have created as pure a democracy as possible. Though he signally fails to offer any justification for the notion that pure democracy produces a better regime than limited democracy, he views democracy as an end in itself, rather than as merely a means to achieve the enumerated ends of the Constitution. Not surprisingly then, when he looks at the Constitution and at the representative Republic it created and has preserved, he is disappointed. Fortunately, else we might have cause to fear for his sanity, Mr. Dahl concedes that his view is aberrant and unlikely ever to prevail:
[T]hough the defects seem to me serious and may grow even more serious with time, Americans are not much predisposed to consider another constitution, nor is it clear what alternative arrangements would serve them better.

As a result, the beliefs of Americans in the legitimacy of their constitution will remain, I think, in conflict with their beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy.

For my part, I believe that the legitimacy of the constitution ought to derive solely from its utility as an instrument of democratic government--nothing more, nothing less.

The more sound view, just on the face of the text itself, would seem to be that the constitution must provide for exactly as much democracy as is necessary to achieve its stated ends. But there you go.

At any rate, Mr. Dahl proceeds to lament the series of checks and balances that the Founders built into the constitutional regime, precisely in order to limit democracy: first past the post elections; the Electoral College; the equal representation of states in the Senate; the Supreme Court; and so forth. All of the safeguards that were built in to protect liberty from the predations of the majority, all of the elements of classical republicanism that the Founders adopted in order to establish a Republic, here come in for opprobrium because they interfere with the realization of democracy. Mr. Dahl has erected a truism--the Constitution is not as democratic as it would need to be if its purposes were exclusively democratic. Particularly after having admitted that a more democratic arrangement wouldn't necessarily serve America better, it's an exercise in futility.


Grade: (C-)


See also:

Robert Dahl Links:

    -Yale > Political Science > Robert A. Dahl
    -ESSAY: After the Triumph: What Next? (Robert A. Dahl, November 1999, UC Berkeley Public Affairs Report)
    -ESSAY: The Shifting Boundaries of Democratic Governments (Social Research, September 22, 1999, Robert A. Dahl )
    -EXCERPTS: from the book On Democracy by Robert A. Dahl
    - Political scientist Dahl to discuss Constitution in Castle Lectures (Yale Bulletin and Calendar, October 13, 2000)
    -Dahl touts old ideas for fairer government (BRIAN GINSBERG, October 27, 2000, Yale Daily News)
    -PROFILE: Doctor of Democracy (Bruce Fellman, May 2002, Yale Alumni Magazine)
    -ESSAY: A European Looks at Dahl?s Democracy (Sergio Fabbrini, Summer 2001, UC Berkeley Public Affairs Report)
    -ARCHIVES: "Robert A. Dahl" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution ? by Robert A. Dahl (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl ( George Scialabba, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl (HENDRIK HERTZBERG, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic (Robert A. Goldwin, Public Interest)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl (MATTHEW HERRINGTON, FindLaw)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl (Ian Drake, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl (James Kruzer, Harvard Political Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Democratic Is the American Constitution? By Robert Dahl (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of On Democracy by Robert Dahl (Joey Fishkin, Yale Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of On Democracy (Commonweal, April 9, 1999, Alan Wolfe)

Book-related and General Links:

    -EXCERPT: Chapter 15: Equality (The Founders Constitution)
    -ESSAY: Republicanism and Democracy (Bo LI, Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 2)
    -ESSAY: Towards widening the democratic canon (Leonardo Avritzer Boaventura de Sousa Santos, 11.03/03, Eurozine)
    -ESSAY : Still the Framers' Constitution? (Cass R. Sunstein, Common-place)