Synopses & Reviews
In this provocative book, one of our most eminent political scientists questions the extent to which the American Constitution furthers democratic goals. Robert Dahl reveals the Constitution's potentially antidemocratic elements and explains why they are there, compares the American constitutional system to other democratic systems, and explores how we might alter our political system to achieve greater equality among citizens. In a new chapter for this second edition, he shows how increasing differences in state populations revealed by the Census of 2000 have further increased the veto power over constitutional amendments held by a tiny minority of Americans. He then explores the prospects for changing some important political practices that are not prescribed by the written Constitution, though most Americans may assume them to be so.
Praise for the previous edition: "A devastating attack on the undemocratic character of the American Constitution."--Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books
In this provocative book, one of our most eminent political scientists poses the question, "Why should Americans uphold their constitution?" The vast majority of Americans venerate the Constitution and the democratic principles it embodies, but many also worry that the United States has fallen behind other nations on crucial issues, including economic equality, racial integration, and women's rights. Robert Dahl explores this vital tension between the Americans' belief in the legitimacy of their constitution and their belief in the principles of democracy.
Dahl starts with the assumption that the legitimacy of the American Constitution derives solely from its utility as an instrument of democratic governance. Dahl demonstrates that, due to the context in which it was conceived, our constitution came to incorporate significant antidemocratic elements. Because the Framers of the Constitution had no relevant example of a democratic political system on which to model the American government, many defining aspects of our political system were implemented as a result of short-sightedness or last-minute compromise. Dahl highlights those elements of the American system that are most unusual and potentially antidemocratic: the federal system, the bicameral legislature, judicial review, presidentialism, and the electoral college system.
The political system that emerged from the world's first great democratic experiment is unique--no other well-established democracy has copied it. How does the American constitutional system function in comparison to other democratic systems? How could our political system be altered to achieve more democratic ends? To what extent did the Framers of the Constitution build features into our political system that militate against significant democratic reform?
Refusing to accept the status of the American Constitution as a sacred text, Dahl challenges us all to think critically about the origins of our political system and to consider the opportunities for creating a more democratic society.