How Democratic Is the American Constitution?

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How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2001, ISBN   0-300-09218-0, among others) is a book by political scientist Robert A. Dahl that discusses seven "undemocratic" elements of the United States Constitution.


The book defines "democratic" as alignment with the principle of one person, one vote, also known as majority rule . The author praises the Framers of the Constitution as "men of exceptional talent and virtue" (p. 7) who made admirable progress in the creation of their republican government. But Dahl also points out that innovation and change in democratic techniques and ideals continued even after the Constitution was codified, and the American system has not adopted all of those new ideas. He says that the Founders were partially constrained by public opinion, which included maintenance of the sovereignty of the thirteen states.

Undemocratic elements

The primary undemocratic aspects of the Constitution that the book sets out are:

The Framers created a representative democracy because they were fearful of direct democracy. Dahl says this is a result of underestimating the ability of the American people as a whole to guide the country on a stable, free-market path that would have respected the property rights of land owners.

What kind of constitution is best?

Dahl considers the question of whether the details of the American Constitution, as amended and practiced in modern times, are superior or inferior to the constitutional systems of other stable democracies. His criteria for evaluation are:

Maintaining stability

Dahl supposes that there are certain conditions which make it easier to maintain a democracy in a given country. He writes that these seem to include "the effective control by elected leaders over the military and police, a political culture supportive of democratic beliefs, and a relatively well-functioning economic order, among others."

Dahl proposes that highly unfavorable circumstances cause instability, no matter the constitutional systems. Under highly favorable circumstances, a country may remain democratic given a range of possible constitutional arrangements, whether or not the system is the best kind for promoting stability. In mixed conditions, he postulates, the details of a country's constitution may tip the balance between stability and undesirable changes, such as conversion to dictatorship.

Dahl points out that the superiority of presidential vs. parliamentary systems in this regard is disputed*, and that correlation between breakdown and presidential systems in the "third world" may not be indicative of a causal relationship. He seems to take the position that different systems may be better suited to the peculiar circumstances of different countries. (p. 96)

* In favor of parliamentary systems, he cites: Juan Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy: Comparative Perspectives, vol. 1. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. In favor of presidential systems, he cites: Matthew Soberg Shugart and John M. Carey, Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. Cambridge University Press, 1992. p. 41-42.

Dahl does note that instability is more common in new democracies:

In the twentieth century, on something like seventy occasions democracies have given way to nondemocratic regimes. Yet with very few exceptions, these breakdowns have occurred in countries where democratic institutions were very new -- less than a generation old. Indeed, the only clear-cut case of a democratic breakdown in a country where democratic institutions had existed for twenty years or more seems to be Uruguay in 1973. In the same year, Chile provided a less clear-cut case because of restrictions on the suffrage that had only recently been lifted. The Weimar Republic had existed fewer than fourteen years before the Nazi takeover.

p. 134-135

International comparisons

Dahl finds meaningful comparisons to the American Constitution only in other countries with similar conditions. He says that there have been only 22 countries, including the United States which have been "steadily democratic" since 1950. His book identifies the following constitutional attributes as important for comparison:

List of countries steadily democratic since at least 1950

How Democratic compares the 23 stable, wealthy democracies on these criteria, summarized as follows:

List of countries steadily democratic since at least 1950
CountryStrongly federal?Strongly bicameral?Upper house with unequal repress.?Strong judicial review?Electoral systemParty systemStructure
Flag of Australia (converted).svg  Australia YesYesYesNoLower House AV; Upper House PR (STV)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Austria.svg  Austria YesNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Belgium (civil).svg  Belgium Yes (since 1993)NoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg  Canada YesNoYesYesFPTPMultiParliamentary
Flag of Costa Rica.svg  Costa Rica NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiPresidential
Flag of Denmark.svg  Denmark NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Finland.svg  Finland NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of France.svg  France NoNoNoNo2 roundMultiParliamentary
Flag of Germany.svg  Germany YesYesYesYesPR (MMP)MultiParliamentary
Flag of India.svg  India YesYesNoYesFPTPMultiParliamentary
Flag of Iceland.svg  Iceland NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Ireland.svg  Ireland NoNoNoNoPR (STV)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Israel.svg  Israel NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Italy.svg  Italy NoYesNoNoPR (MMP)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Japan.svg  Japan NoNoNoNoSemi-PRMultiParliamentary
Flag of Luxembourg.svg  Luxembourg NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of the Netherlands.svg  Netherlands NoYesNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of New Zealand.svg  New Zealand NoNoNoNoPR (MMP)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Norway.svg  Norway NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Sweden.svg  Sweden NoNoNoNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of Switzerland.svg   Switzerland YesYesYesNoPR (list)MultiParliamentary
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom NoNoNoNoFPTPMultiParliamentary
Flag of the United States.svg  United States YesYesYesYesFPTPTwoPresidential
FPTP:3, PR-list:13, PR-AV:1, 2-round:1 PR-MMP:3, PR:STV:1 Semi-PR:1Two:1,
Source: R. Dahl (2000), How Democratic Is the American Constitution? - Table 1

Protecting democratic rights

Looking at Freedom House rankings, Dahl concludes that there is no discernible correlation between the seven constitutional features and ratings on political rights or civil rights among the 23 comparison countries.

Fairness and consensus

Dahl contrasts majoritarian governments, where the electoral system (for example, first-past-the-post) can grant a dominant group (or even a minority group) decisive control over the government, with proportional systems, where governmental control is more distributed. He concludes that proportional systems are more "fair".

Proportional systems also do more to promote consensus-building, he claims, because of the need to build coalitions to form a majority.

Dahl considers the American system to be a hybrid, due to its bicameral legislature and strong separation of powers, and the strong executive, which he says does not fit the mold of either category.

Problem-solving effectiveness

Data from Patterns of Democracy (Yale University Press, 1999) by Arend Lijphart is presented in an appendix, which ranks the U.S. on a best-to-worst scale among a varying number of countries. Ranked criteria include economic growth, unemployment, inflation, economic inequality, women's representation, energy efficiency, incarceration rates, social spending, voter turnout, and foreign aid. Not all analysts would agree with Dahl that all of these criteria are appropriate measures of government effectiveness, and in some cases, there are political disagreements on whether a given indicator should be higher or lower. In the rankings that are given, the United States is in the best third of one, the middle third of six, and the bottom third of eight.

Dahl states that difference in size, diversity, and economic affluence make attributing good performance on these measures to government effectiveness too difficult. He does describe American performance as "mediocre," and concludes that changing the United States Constitution to a system resembling one of the other stable democracies would not necessarily negatively impact government performance.

See also