Book by Yale Professor Puts U.S. Constitution in Historical Perspective

In his new book, Yale political science professor Robert A. Dahl takes a provocative look at the U.S. Constitution and draws startling conclusions about its democratic foundations.

“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” explores the historic context of the Constitution’s framing and discusses some of the inherent flaws that paradoxically undermine its professed democratic tenets.

Dahl identifies seven “undemocratic elements” in the Constitution as it was framed. 1. The failure to outlaw slavery. 2. Denying suffrage to women, African Americans and Native Americans. 3. Establishing the Electoral College to determine the outcome of presidential elections. 4. Having state legislators, not the people directly, choose U.S. senators. 5. By virtue of a Senate composed of two members from each state, allowing unequal representation in Congress. 6. Giving the judiciary too much power over the legislature. 7. Limiting the power of Congress, and hence the federal government, to regulate or control the economy.

Some of these defects have been corrected over the years, Dahl notes, but several remain intractable problems that impede democratization to this day. One of these is equal representation for each state in the Senate, which has historically been used, particularly by Southern states, to thwart civil rights legislation. Even after the Civil War, Dahl says, the Southern states in the Senate used their veto power to quash civil rights legislation. “…the Southern veto not only helped to bring about the end of Reconstruction; for another century it prevented the country from enacting federal laws to protect the most basic human rights of African Americans.”

Another major shortcoming of the American constitutional government, argues Dahl, is the “majoritarian” electoral system, whereby only one vote above the median can determine which party holds power. The majoritarian, or “first-past-the-post,” system sets the United States apart from the other advanced democracies of the world, he says. The more common “proportional” system, which is generally multiparty, gives different parties representation according to the percentage of votes their candidates receive. The proportional, or “consensus,” system accommodates a greater diversity of political opinion and gives more citizens a voice in the government, Dahl argues.

In this accessible book, published by Yale University Press, Dahl presents compelling evidence that the American Constitution falls short of its own professed ideals, but he maintains that it is a very useful “instrument of democratic government.” The first step on the road to achieving a more egalitarian society, he suggests, is accepting the Constitution, not as a sacred text but as a flawed document. He urges reforms within the limits of the Constitution to achieve greater political equality, acknowledging that the Constitution arms “those who possess the greatest resources with strong defenses-opportunities to veto changes-against efforts to reduce their privileged positions.”

Dahl is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science and past president of the American Political Science Association (APSA). He has received many awards and distinctions including the APSA James Madison Award and the Talcott Parsons Prize for Social Science by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The author of many acclaimed books, Dahl received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation award for both “Who Governs?” and “Democracy and Its Critics.” His book “On Democracy,” published by Yale University Press in 2000, has been translated into almost 30 foreign languages.

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345