Americans hold their Constitution in high esteem. In fact, they regard their constitution as one, which espouses the highest levels of democracy not only in the western hemisphere but also in the entire world. The Unites States of America might have been the first nation to craft the first democratic constitution in the modern age but is their constitution beyond reproach? Author and Yale Political Science Professor Robert A. Dahl calls out the American constitution in his provocative 224-page second edition book. He terms the Constitution as “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 such, Dahl rates the American Constitution a failure if regarded an instrument to be used by a truly democratic nation.
This essay provides a review of the book How Democratic is the American constitution?
Dahl emerges in the book as a critical and analytical writer. This stems from his cleverly comparison of the American constitutional system with the constitutional system from other countries. One pillar of the American constitution he questions regards the principle of equality among all American citizens. According to the author, the notion of equality as espoused in the American constitution is still off the mark. In the book, he opines that much more has to be done to alter political systems within the United States for all Americans to realize a true entitlement and realization of the American dream.
In what might stoke controversy within the ranks of conservative Americans, Dahl questions the veto powers over constitutional amendments still held by a tiny minority of the citizens in the federation. In a new chapter introduced in the second edition of How Democratic is the American Constitution? Dahl bases his argument on the population census of year 2000, from which he opines that this minority’s influence on the constitution has been enhanced by increasing population differences between the states. Interestingly, Dahl does not spare the average American from blind adherence and fanatical belief in their constitution. He opines that there are many important political issues and practices ordinary Americans assume are prescribed by the written Constitution, but in reality, they are not. These issues, Dahl proposes, warrant a revision in the Constitution.
While choosing to question the American Constitution might be comparable to committing treason in the eyes of any patriotic American, Dahl takes the risk in his book. This approach raises another question besides the publication’s title: where should Americans place more importance? For instance, should Americans consider the Constitution as a written document or the democratic ideals the Constitution is supposed to uphold? Dahl chooses to explore the latter. Dahl, therefore, opines that, in matters to do with democratic ideals, the American Constitution has fallen short of expectations if not overtaken by the turn of events in the modern democratic era. Dahl arrives at this conclusion based on comparisons with other democracies around the world, which have been steadily democratic since 1950 and number 22 in total the United States inclusive. The author, therefore, takes both a historical and contemporary approach in his critique of the American Constitution. Federalism, bicameralism, political parties and the electoral systems are some of the pointers Dahl uses in his texts for drawing comparisons.
Dahl calls out the often misunderstood and controversial system of the Electoral College (which is vested with the final decision-making on who becomes the president of the federal government), the role of American courts, as well as the model used to elect senators (Dahl, 2003). This idea might resonate with both Americans and non-Americans. This notion is not the only undemocratic aspect of the Constitution. Secondly, he faults the Constitution for tolerating slavery in the United States in order to keep the Southern states, which relied heavily on plantation agriculture that thrived on slave labor. Slavery was only outlawed after the Civil War (1861-5). Dahl also terms the suffrage system that only allowed women to vote in 1920 despite the US gaining independence from Britain in 1776. African-Americans and Native Americans, on the other hand, were virtually excluded from voting until 1964 when the Twenty-Fourth Amendment outlawed poll taxes, which were being used to exclude these minorities from voting (Dahl, 2001).
However, Dahl does not just launch an onslaught on the Constitution without giving his own piece of mind on what democracy means in his own words. He writes that for a country to be fully democratic it should provide rights, liberties, and opportunities for effective participation, voting equality, the ability to acquire sufficient understanding of policies and their consequences that would enable citizens maintain control of government agenda, policies and decisions (Dahl, 2001).
How Democratic is the American Constitution Scores a number of merits to almost any reader top of which is opening the mindset of the average American to alternative views about the Constitution. The book also provides a forum of engagement with the reader on divergent views about American ideals of democracy as well as the political decision-making process (Dahl, 2003). This approach also gives an insight into the inner workings of the American political, Constitutional and judicial system and how relevant or not it is going to be in the near future. These facts open the reader’s perspective from a historical angle, as well as general worldview on how political system around the world work.
Even though the American Constitution takes most of the beating in the text, Dahl is honest enough to point out that it is impossible for any human society to have a perfect constitution. He articulates that instead of judging a state as undemocratic for having an imperfect constitution, the threshold should rather be hinged on how close it comes to the ideal and frequency by which it strives to arrive at this goal.
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