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How Democratic Is the American Constitution? 2nd Edition

51 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300092189
ISBN-10: 0300092180
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Dahl, the dean of American political scientists, offers . . . a clear-headed dissection of the U.S. constitutional order. -- R.K. Baker, The Times of Trenton

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Product Details

  • Series: Castle Lectures Series
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2nd edition (March 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300092180
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300092189
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Alexander R. Small on May 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Some other reviewers have citicized this book with the non-sequitur that the US is "a republic, not a democracy." A republic is simply a representative democracy. The Founders feared a system in which a majority of the population could empower their representatives to do whatever the majority so pleases. To prevent such a nightmare they proposed limits on government power. Although they feared the unchecked will of the majority, they all agreed that the "will of the people" was a better source of power than any alternative. Anybody who recites from rote the "Republic, not a democracy" mantra to ward off any discussion of perfecting our form of government is forgetting that the preamble to the Constitution speaks of a "more perfect union", not "a perfect union."
That said, the question Dahl raises is why no other government in the world is quite like ours. He makes it clear that the Framers had good ideas, but suggests that other nations have improved on the excellent baseline model established by the Framers. That is a very reasonable proposition. Ironically, much of the innovation seen in other nations consists of solutions to problems that our Framers thought they had solved.
The Framers feared "faction", because blind partisanship is clearly a bad thing. Ironically, a failure to foresee and allow for the inevitable formation of parties has only exacerbated the effects of "faction." Dahl addresses the lack of proportional representation (PR), where each party gets seats in (at least one house of) the legislature in proportion to its share of the vote. The lack of PR leads to a two-party system. When you only have two parties, the inevitable result is rancor and polarization.
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Sanford Thier on February 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I think the book is a good one, as far as it goes. But, I think that the author, like virtually every author on the subject, is essentially arguing trivia that has little relevance to the real world. They intellectualize on a subject that our Government does not take seriously

The truth is that what the Constitution says or the form it takes simply has no consequence since the people who run our government simply ignore those provisions it does not like, enforces those provisions that enhance their power, and the Supreme Court can make its words mean anything they want by interpreting it to mean whatever they want it to mean. Let me give a few examples.

Example:1 Perhaps the most glaring example is the ruling that money equals speech. This ruling gives Constitutional protection thru the Free Speech Amendment for Corporations and the super rich to bribe any government official they want. Could anything be more obscene than to use the Bill of Rights to permit what would normally be a criminal action. I don't think so. When one adds that to the recent ruling that Corporations are persons under law, there is no hope for the common man to have any reasonable chance to have a seat at the tables when laws are being enacted that are critical to there own well being. Both of those interpretations are so absurd on the face of them that one simply cannot take any intellectual arguments about the Constitution seriously. And while our government scrupulously enforces those rulings, the smply ignore others.

Example:2 You may not know it but our government violates the Constitution on several subjects. The first is tha the Constitution states that our government is to give an accounting for all expenditures.
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26 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Shelley H. on July 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I was enthralled by this book the instant I saw it, because it asked hard questions about American democracy that I've never heard from anyone else before. I would summarize this book as a short course in comparative democracies (sort of like comparative religions), discussing the similarities and differences between democracies that work.
The main question that Dahl asks is, "Why should we feel bound today by a document produced more than two centuries ago by a group of fifty-five mortal men, actually signed by only thirty-nine, a fair number of whom were slaveholders, and adopted in only thirteen states by the votes of fewer than two thousand men, all of whom are long since dead and mainly forgotten?"
Chapter 3 is the most interesting part of this book, where Dahl compares the American constitution to other democratic governments. "[A]mong the countries most comparable to the United States...not one has adopted our American constitutional system. It would be fair to say that without a single exception they have all rejected it. Why?" Dahl explores this question with respect to the American bicameral chambers (House and Senate), unequal representation (in the Senate), judicial review, the electoral system, two-party systems, and the presidental system. He discusses how the American system works versus other democracies, comparatively pointing out strengths and weaknesses.
Overall I found this a stimulating, well-written, and deep book that looks at fundamental questions about American democracy that few people seem to be asking. Unlike other authors, however, he doesn't do this in a pessimistic manner, criticizing the American system needlessly. It was more of "we've done pretty well all things considered, but we can do better, and we should strive to do better."
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