How Democratic Is the American Constitution? and over 2 million other books are available for Amazon Kindle . Learn more
FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over £10.
Only 1 left in stock (more on the way).
Dispatched from and sold by Amazon.
Gift-wrap available.
Trade in your item
Get a £0.49
Gift Card.
Have one to sell?
Flip to back Flip to front
Listen Playing... Paused   You're listening to a sample of the Audible audio edition.
Learn more
See this image

How Democratic is the American Constitution? (Castle Lectures Series) Paperback – 23 Jan 2004

See all 4 formats and editions Hide other formats and editions
Amazon Price New from Used from
Kindle Edition
"Please retry"
"Please retry"
£5.32 £4.42

Trade In Promotion

Frequently Bought Together

How Democratic is the American Constitution? (Castle Lectures Series) + Britain Since 1945: The People's Peace
Price For Both: £23.58

Buy the selected items together

Free One-Day Delivery for six months with Amazon Student

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition edition (23 Jan 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300095244
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300095241
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 12.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 551,791 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Discover books, learn about writers, and more.

Product Description


Praise for the previous edition:
"A devastating attack on the undemocratic character of the American Constitution." -- Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books

About the Author

Robert A. Dahl is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University and past president of the American Political Science Association. He is the author of numerous books, including Who Governs?, Democracy and Its Critics, and On Democracy, all published by Yale University Press.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
MY AIM IN THIS BRIEF BOOK IS NOT TO PROPOSE changes in the American Constitution but to suggest changes in the way we think about our constitution. Read the first page
Explore More
Browse Sample Pages
Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
Search inside this book:

Customer Reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars
5 star
4 star
3 star
2 star
1 star
See the customer review
Share your thoughts with other customers

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 3 Sep 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book starts by placing the American constitution in its historical and social context. By using contemporary documents the author determines what the drafters of the constitution were trying to achieve, which was essentially a massive compromise. What they were producing was never intended to be a democratic set of rules, quite the converse. The idea that the country should be a democracy very quickly gained ground, but the damage to true democracy had already been done by the enormous compromises made in the constitution, for example slavery, states having the decision as to how to elect representatives, unequal representation in the senate, a president who is both head of state and the leader of the government and who is elected not by a popular vote but by an unrepresentative electoral college. The author eloquently explains that there was no model for a democratic republic at the time so the framers were feeling their way in the dark. There also seems to have been an inordinate amount of discord as to what a republic actually is. Certainly our modern day concept that a republic is the opposite of a monarchy doesn't seem to have been the accepted rule then. So the constitution is in many ways an anachronism, attempting to achieve goals which long ago became obsolete (in some cases within a few years of the drafting of the constitution) while damaging democracy in the modern world. To view the constitution as a masterpiece of political insight made by a group of matchless wonder kind is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, as well as historically inaccurate. So how has the constitution served? The answer can only be poorly. People who value freedom and democracy as much as Americans do deserve something better surely? Many alternatives, drawn from various constitutions, are debated here. The solution seems to be, as ever, proportional representation. However you view it PR produces good government which is also truly representative and therefore truly democratic.
Comment Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback. If this review is inappropriate, please let us know.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again

Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 46 reviews
50 of 59 people found the following review helpful
Thought-provoking and bold but still realistic 27 May 2002
By Alexander R. Small - Published on
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. Conversely, multi-party systems require coalitions, compromise, and negotiation. If the formation of parties in inevitable, I'd much prefer a system in which parties compromise and solve problems rather than demonize and obstruct.
Also, Dahl points out that the Founders feared a popularly elected President because (a) they believed no national figure would emerge and (b) they feared that if one did emerge he would be a strong-man. They also rejected a Parliamentary system because they wanted checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. However, the electoral college rapidly evolved into a crude accounting scheme for national campaigns, and Dahl explores the historical background to this evolution. He also points out that we now have Presidents with "mandates." This suggests that maybe our Executive branch is TOO independent.
Finally, Dahl addresses the (sady, unchangeable) malapportionment of the Senate. He points out that revered advocates of limited government (e.g. Madison) opposed equal Senate representation for each state. In fact, Madison accused the small-state representatives of seeking power rather than liberty. Conservatives should be wary of any system that gives a small group huge power. Dahl argues persuasively that protection of minorities should look at ideological or political minorities, not minorities based on which state a person happens to live in. Ultimately, people should be free to organize politically with whomever they agree, and not be forced to organize their interests along artificial lines drawn by governments.
Overall, Dahl does an excellent job of pointing out the areas where our Constitution needs a fine-tuning, and he brilliantly demolishes the political ancestor-worship underlying opposition to his critique.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
He missses the point 19 Feb 2010
By Sanford Thier - Published on
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. So, why do they have a "Black Budget" that keeps secret tens billions of dollars that are spent on operations that the public doesn't know about. It is a clear violation.

Example;2 In passing Trade Treatise like NAFTA and the WTO, the Constitution requires a two thirds vote of the Senate. That, of course, didn't happen. They were instead put thru an unconstitutional process called "Fast Track" where members of Congress were not allowed to add amendments. This sham was created by denying that these treaties were treaties, by simply calling them "Agreements." One cannot make treaty not a treaty by simply calling it something else. You cannot turn a dog into a act by renaming it. This is an obvious violation of the Constitution.

EXAMPLE:3 the Constitution requires that only the Congress can declare war. That is another provision that is simply ignored. We have been in dozens of wars since WW II and we have never declared war on anyone.

Example:4 GWB created a precedent that allows the President to ignore any law he wants, simply by creating a Signing Statement. He did it dozens of times during his Administration. The way it works is that whenever Congress passes a law and it goes to the President for his signature, he doesn't veto it, he signs it and attaches a Signing Statement that notifies Congress that, even though he is signing the law, he does not intend to obey or enforce it.

Example:5 Finally, the President can simply ignore the Constitution by simply declaring and "Emergency." Most people don't know it, but we have operating in a state of emergency since WW II. That means that every President since Harry Truman, is free to ignore the Constitution whenever he wishes.

The truth is that the Constitution as, interpreted by the Supreme Court, has created a rigged system that has been manipulated to give all power to the moneyed interests and to ignore what the people want. Given the present situation, it seems to me that any intellectual arguments regarding any requirements of the Constitution is simply meaningless.

The book is an interesting read, but it is just an academic exercise. It has no real relevance in the real world.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
A short course in comparative democracy 9 July 2002
By Jason Hong - Published on
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."
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Brief but insightful 12 Aug 2002
By mrliteral - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Dahl's book is actually more of an extended essay on the Constitution and the conflicts it has with modern concepts of democracy. In particular, Dahl focuses on such elements of the Constitution as senate representation and the electoral college, both of which provide representation on a basis other than that of population.
These "flaws" in the Constitution are nothing new. Dahl's more insightful work is where he compares the United States to other, similar democracies and sees how our Constitution compares with theirs.
This is a fast read, but that's as much a result of the brevity of the book as its writing. There are items Dahl could have developed more: in particular, the difficulty of amendment ratification fits perfectly into his book, but he really only mentions it as a stumbling block to Constitutional reform, not as another anti-democratic element of the document.
Despite its flaws, this book succeeds in its chief goal, which is to look at the Constitution in a realistic manner, without the glorification that so many people give it. It may provide more questions than answers, but these are good questions that need to be asked.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
No example for the world 9 April 2006
By Gaius Sempronius Gracchus - Published on
Format: Paperback
Dahl's fine book attacks the American Constitution and system of government for each of the following undemocratic features, most of them totally unique to the US among the world's advanced democracies, and all very rare.

? The Electoral College.

? A bicameral legislature.

? Grotesquely unequal representation in the Senate.

? Judicial review (veto) of acts of the federal legislature, duly signed into law by the President.

? Judicial legislation ("policy making") under cover of enforcement of the Constitution.

? Single member legislative districts with plurality voting (so-called, "first past the post"), contrasted unfavorably with proportional representation and runoff systems.

? The two party system.

? A President with important powers wholly independent of the legislature, contrasted unfavorably with the much more common system of ministerial government responsible to the legislature.

? A strong federal system imposing significant limits on the powers of the general government.

This is a short book in which, of course, RD does not say all he knows, or complain of every undemocratic characteristic of our system. For example, he does not complain of these, and so proposes no better alternative - however hopeless.

? Federal judges are appointed rather than elected.

? Federal judges have effective life tenure.

? There is no federal recall.

? There is no federal initiative.

? There is no federal referendum.

? Legislation is unduly influenced, and often even written, by lobbyists in service of moneyed interests (RD does allude to this).

? Tens of millions of America's mentally competent, non-criminal permanent residents lack the franchise.

? Tens of millions of America's people who have the franchise do not vote. (In the words of Sharona Fleming, "It only encourages them.")

? There is no "None of the above" option for voters.

? The means of campaigning are almost wholly within the gift of the rich (RD does allude to this disgraceful fact in one sentence).

? The means of political propaganda in general, from report and comment in the mass media to the productions of "think tanks," are almost wholly within the gift of the rich.

? Holders of high federal office - including judges, legislators, and the President - are nearly all lawyers and nearly all personally members of the wealthiest strata.

? The legislature has only the slightest real impact on foreign policy in general, and not much even on treaties. It has none on the extra-constitutional device of the "executive agreement."

? The requirement of a Congressional declaration of war is not observed and is without effect.

? There is no popular constraint on, or control over, government - and in reality Presidential - war-making power.

RD is justly pessimistic about the prospects for democratic change, but says not a word about why. But we know why, don't we? Many, if not all, of the undemocratic features of our system serve to protect the interests of the oligarchy who own and operate that machine.

And some are bizarre. Did you know the inequalities of representation enshrined in the Senate (half of America's people elect 18 Senators, while the other half elect 82) are reproduced in lesser degree to the benefit of the very same states in the Electoral College, giving them a wildly disproportionate impact on the selection of the President?

Over 700 proposals to reform or abolish the Electoral College have been passed in the House - and died in the Senate.
Were these reviews helpful? Let us know