April 26, 2002


REVIEW ESSAY : Rambunctious American Democracy (Gordon S. Wood, May 9, 2002, The New York Review of Books)
Since [Robert A.] Dahl, who is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University, doesn't like our Constitution, his book is very critical of the
man [James Madison] considered most responsible for it. His criticism is well directed, for, as Garry Wills points out, Madison, more than any other Founder, was
radically opposed to the very sort of direct democracy that Dahl most admires. Madison wanted to refine the voice of the people in government, not replicate it, as Dahl would like to do. In his new book, which originated as the Castle Lectures at Yale, Dahl has brought together his long-existing criticism of Madison's attempts to restrain majority rule into a devastating attack on the undemocratic character of the American Constitution. Perhaps not since Progressive scholars such as J. Allen Smith wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century has anyone condemned the Constitution so harshly.

Dahl wants us to change the way we think about the Constitution. We should stop assuming it to be a national icon that is superior to the constitutional structures of other democratic countries and begin to consider ways of reforming it in order to make it more compatible with democratic standards and values. 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 that he hopes may, in time, lead to something.

These shortcomings are serious, and many of them can be traced to the mistakes of Madison and the other members of the Philadelphia Convention who drew up the Constitution. Of course, says Dahl, some of the undemocratic features of our constitutional system, such as the extraordinary power over social policy that has come to be wielded by the Supreme Court, were not really the fault of the Framers. But many others were. The most egregious of their mistakes (apart from their failure to abolish slavery, of course) involved their acceptance of political inequality, most notably in the equal representation of the states in the Senate and in the use of electors in the election of the president. Whatever justification there was for the so-called "Connecticut Compromise" at the convention, which entitled each state to two senators, it has led, says Dahl, to "a profound violation of the democratic idea of political equality among all citizens." That Wyoming, with a half-million people, has the same two senators as California, with nearly 34 million, is in Dahl's opinion an absurdity. Other established democratic states have federal systems and bicameral legislatures with one house representing geographical units, but none of them has such a gross degree of unequal representation as the United States.

"Exactly whom or whose interests is a second chamber supposed to represent?" Dahl asks. Certainly the Framers provided "no rationally convincing answer." As far as Dahl is concerned, the only reason second chambers exist "in all federal systems is to preserve and protect unequal representation. That is, they exist primarily to ensure that the representatives of small units cannot be readily outvoted by the representatives of large units. In a word, they are designed to construct a barrier to majority rule at the national level."

Of course, that's precisely the genius of the American system. What Mr. Dahl perceives as shortcomings are those features of the Constitution that act as brakes upon the momentary and short-sighted passions of men, and make it difficult for a mere majority to make radical changes. The one criticism here that's correct is of the Supreme Court, and it's correct because the Court has taken on this kind of extraordinary power to make fundamental changes to society.

As mentioned in various posts below, two changes to the Constitution that are worthy of consideration are a restriction of the franchise (via literacy tests, poll taxes, hiking voting age back up to 21, doing away with direct election of Senators, getting rid of "one man, one vote", taking away the District of Columbia's electoral votes, etc.) and imposing limitations on the power of the Court to make the final determination of a law's constitutionality (perhaps by allowing a supermajority in Congress and the president together to veto Court rulings).

We've too much democracy, not too little, and a Judiciary whose legislative activities completely violate the intent of the Framers. The conservative spirit of the Constitution is intended to make change difficult to achieve--we like that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2002 10:04 AM
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