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How Democratic is the American Constitution by Robert Darl

HowDemocratic is the American Constitutionby Robert Darl

of the book

RobertDarl examines America’s constitutional questions in relation toother aspects of the American democracy such as rights and liberties.The author intends to spark a new kind of perspective on how ordinarycitizens should interpret the constitution in modern times. Thesubmission’s main theme is to provoke a deliberate analysis of theconstitution in terms of the relevance of its provisions, theinstitutions established by it, and its operation in modern Americaas a document that probably needs some changes or replaced. AlthoughDarl attempts to sound as an advisory scholar on the subject ofmodern American constitutionalism, the substantive aspects of thebook point towards a subtle desire for constitutional changes. Thebook can, therefore, be summarized into six major points that reflectDahl’s major topics:

Darloffers a description on the failings of the framers of theconstitution. Darl recognizes that the framers of the constitutionwere, of course, men of virtue and wisdom. However, they had limitedknowledge and they did not have the privilege of accessing any pastreference to craft a constitution of a democracy to the scale of theUnited States. He compares them to inventors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, the Wright Brothers, and Benjamin Franklin (Darl 8). As muchas they were great inventors, their knowledge was by far limited thana modern novice in their respective fields of expertise. As such, theframers of the constitution wrote it with the best intentions invirtue and in wisdom, they a suitable point of reference because moreknowledge was to be accumulated in years to come. The other majorfactors that could have limited the framers of constitution includethe need for compromises among delegates, the issue of slavery, theexistence of only thirteen states with more states to come, andlacking the democratic elements that are relevant to America’sfuture generations.

Perhaps,the most defining theme of the book is the developed illusion thatAmerica’s constitution is a model. The Constitution has never andwill never be the archetype platform for countries to envy or adoptsince it contains numerous vague instances and components. Darl notesthat major democracies of the caliber of the United States did notadopt the American constitutional model (Dahl43). The mere fact that not even one of the world democracies decidedto use the American constitutional model is a sign of rejection.Compared to other old democracies such in English-speaking countries,Darl contends that the American constitutional system is unusual. Inelecting the President, Darl contends that the Electoral College wasestablished because the framers of the constitution had run out ofoptions. They did not trust the majority to elect the president butrather wanted it to be left to a select body of wise, outstanding,and virtuous citizens. On the other hand, Darl provides someinsightful information on the performance of a constitutional system.According to him, the system has multifaceted aspects and requireswell-developed frameworks, which makes it difficult for mostcountries to adopt. Darl concludes that the American constitutionalsystem is too intricate to transfer to another country. All countriesthat have had functioning constitution have been able to sustainindependent democratic institutions. Liberty is preserved not onlythrough a constitutional system but also through the beliefs andcultures shared by the political, cultural, and legal elites of acountry (76). On whether or not the constitution should be replacedwith a more democratic document, Darl suggests a legitimateconstitution should serve the democratic ends of citizens. In thisregards, it is critical to analyze the book in order to determine itsrelevance and accuracy concerning America’s political system andthe Constitution.

TheAccuracy of the book from a theoretical standpoint

Darlposits that people have always held an allegory that the AmericanConstitution acts as the inspiration of international democracy.However, he asserts that this myth neglects the existing democraticstandards in numerous instances. It is critical to point out that thebook evaluates several ways in which the Constitution itself does notin all cases holds the fairness of representation. In this regards,the issues within the Constitution described in the book provide acritical perspective in illustrating democracy in America. In fact,Darl presents an accurate evidence of the gaps in the Constitutionbased on a conjectural perspective. However, although the bookprovides comprehensive information on the Constitution, it does notpresent in-depth research on the democratic systems. Moreover, itdoes not provide counterarguments for some supporting evidence, forexample, the Electoral College, and the Senate. Despite theseshortcomings, the book is accurate on the democratic nature ofAmerica particularly in areas touching on the Constitution,proportional and majoritarian democracy and the changes required. Thebook bears and a near accurate account of the theoretical aspects ofthe American constitution. The first and very important in Darl’sbook is the considerate acknowledgment of the cultic reverenceAmericans have always been to the constitution. In proposing aconstitution change, the author is well cognizant of thesocio-political environment in which it can happen. The secondfactual representation of the book is the vivid description of theinevitable limited knowledge of the framers of the constitution. Theycould have been the best at the time in terms of understanding thepolitical, economic, and social environment of the first thirteenstates, but their knowledge of the future was curtailed by a lack ofconstitutional precedent for a democracy as diverse as America (Darl23). Indeed, Darl’s deliberate attempt to compare the framers withother notable inventors in history is a tactical strategy because itfulfills his intention to demonstrate that the constitution shouldhave been written in such a manner as to accommodate the changingtimes and increasing cultural diversity.

Darlcontests the idea of small states having equal representations andprotection from congressional majorities. He contests on grounds thatthere is no context that is applicable in general terms, which canjustify extra representation for some individuals and groups. Theauthor gives Nevada and Alaska as examples of states that should beprotected from legislations by congressional majorities that mayviolate the rights of citizens living in such states. The challengeof this kind of view is that the United States is a federal republicwhere states have considerable autonomy. The size of the America andthe diversity of its people may not accommodate a unitary governmentthat represents the needs and aspirations of all Americans. Apossible challenge to this view is that each state joined the unionwith its autonomous interests as defined its constitution. Thedecision to join the federal constitution was, therefore, motivatedby the motivation for a bigger power to protect state rights intandem with federal issues rather than use at its expense.

Avital theoretical aspect that is accurately articulated by Darl isthe possibility of a constitutional change that would make theAmerican constitution more democratic than it has been over theyears. Darl is aware of the daunting task that any ideologicalrevolutionary would have if they began a nation-wide campaign torally the public to support a constitutional amendments.Theoretically, it seems feasible since Americans have had manyrevolutions that have led to a constitutional change notwithstandingthe divisive politics that befell such causes. Amendments to reformhow the Electoral College works and the representation of states inthe senate are, indeed, an uphill task. Americans hold theconstitution so dear that they might not believe the motives of apolitician to make constitutional changes. Even politicians are alsoso divided based on party and ideological lines that reaching anyconsensus on a constitutional amendment has little chance ofhappening in the near future. The unlikelihood of electoral andrepresentational reforms suggested by Darl is indeed a reality thatneeds considerable time for American politics and public opinion toshift towards reforming the constitution to reflect a modern Americanwith over 400 million people rather than be stuck in political realmsof the framers.

Darlalso accurately discusses the American electoral system. The electionof the president was, indeed, an issue of contention when framerswere making compromises with states in order to have theconstitution. Electors, as it had been envisioned by the framers,were supposed to be an elite group of individuals carefully selected.The institution of the Electoral College has changed over time toaccommodate new states and adjusted to fit the new demographics inold states. The changes are a clear testimony that the idea isprogressive. Darl concern, however, is that the idea of the ElectoralCollege could have been overtaken with time because it does notsometimes reflect the will of the majority of Americans. He gives anexample of the 2000 presidential election in which the candidate withfewer votes ended up being president because his opponent had fewerelectors in the Electoral College (79). Darl’s view on theElectoral College is also contestable in many ways. First, proponentsmay argue that a presidential candidate wins all the electors of astate as long as they get a majority of votes in that particularstate. Darl, on the other hand, rebuts with the view that not all theother votes cast in favor of the defeated candidate in a state countregardless of the fact that they have a significant bearing on thepopular vote. The most interesting aspect of Darl’s criticism aboutthe manner in which the presidential election is framed in theconstitution is the fact sometimes an elected president may actuallynot have the mandate of the majority of states as well as themajority of states. The best example to illustrate his skepticism isa situation where a presidential candidate has a majority ofelectoral votes but they do not win the popular vote and the numberof states that elected them ends up being fewer than those of theopponent. In this case, Darl suggests that it should be replaced witha more progressive system of electing the president, which allows allvotes to matter in a presidential election rather than reduce theirsignificance at the state level.

Relevanceto American politics today

Thebook is very applicable to the American politics today, principallyin the political system, such as the Electoral College, the Senate,elections, fair representation, and the suggested solutions toovercoming the challenges experienced in the Electoral Collegerealms. Darl proffers a dynamic and contextual standpoint, whichshows that the Constitution has not always been the ideal platformfor democracy. The Constitution has certain gaps that need to beaddressed while the current political scene depicts the relevance ofthe book in not only the scene today but also in the future. In orderto defend and express the relevance of Darl’s views in the book toAmerican politics, two issues are inescapable. The first issue is the2016 presidential election and the second issue is the Supreme Court.The American constitution did not remain static from the time it wasadopted in Philadelphia. It took many years of gradual change thatmade it possible to apply the supreme law in an increasingly changingworld. It is also worth to note modern America is very different fromthe America of 1787 (142). In 1787, the country was mainly rural,with many states owning slaves, and no major towns or cities, as itis evident today. The country had only four million people, which isless than 1 percent of America’s modern population. Theconstitution was simply a compromise of states that were so fearfulof a powerful central government. The framers also accepted numerouscompromises in order to build coalitions that could help expedite theadoption the constitution. Today, there are no compelling reasons fora state to have many undue concerns about the possibility the federalgovernment usurping its mandate as enshrined in the constitution.There are no slaves today and a majority of Americans lives in urbancenters with the freedom to move from one state to another withoutmany restrictions. Nonetheless, states still require the autonomy topass their own laws as long as they do not contravene the federalconstitution.

Theissue of the state and federal laws following the federalconstitution brings up the powers of the Supreme Court. Theconstitution does not give the judiciary, especially the SupremeCourt express powers, but its role continues to grow as a factthroughout time. If the role of the judiciary and many otherconstitutional provisions have evolved over time, then, Darl’ssuggestions in the book are, indeed, plausible. The Electoral Collegeis an aspect of the constitution that many pundits who share Darl’sview contend is undemocratic. A possible rebuttal cited by Darl isthat the framers of the constitution could have intended to establisha republic rather than a democracy. Such a view, however, contradictsthe declaration that all men are born equal. If all people were bornequal, then, the state should at least accord them equalrepresentation in determining the person who leads the country. Backto the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won the presidencybecause of getting the constitutional threshold of more than 270electoral votes. He, however, lost over 1 million of the popular voteto his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In other democracies where acandidate wins elections by a clear majority of the electorate,Hillary Clinton could the president-elect. The structure of theAmerican senate is even more undemocratic. The state of Wisconsin hasover six million people, but it gets the same level of representationas California, which has over 36 million inhabitants. It does notamount to the one-man one vote principle that is supposed to shapepopular democratic elections.

Theframers of the constitution intended to create a supreme court thatwill strictly adhere to judicial review without partisanship. Inmodern America, however, the Supreme Court has become a battle fordemocrats and republicans, and even liberals to flex theirideological muscle depending on the majority of justices sitting onthe bench. A great example is the replacement of the late JusticeScalia by President Barack Obama. The Congress kept ignoring thepresident’s new nominee for Supreme Court judge because it has aRepublican majority. Republicans in the Congress argue that they wanta more conservative justice to the scale of the late Justice Scalia.It reveals that the Supreme Court does not necessarily engage instrict law review but rather an expression of ideological leaningsespecially on pertinent issues of the society such as the size of thefederal government, the rights of the LGBTQ community, governmentfunded contraception for women, and abortion. These and many issuesare indicators that underscore Darl’s view that the likelihood thatthe Supreme Court will refrain from legislating public policiesespecially on issues that are highly partisan is a phenomenon that isnot likely to change any time soon (Darl 155). It is unsurprisingthat a Supreme Court ruling in today’s America is tantamount to acongressional legislation-meaning that there is real power contestbetween the Supreme Court and the Congress. Ideally, it should beengaged on judicial review issues with a strict adherence to theprotection of fundamental democratic rights and issues of federalism.

Conclusion:Reflections on the book

Thebook contains profound information about democracy in American andthe gaps contained in the Constitution. Darl presents numerous policyconsiderations and recommendations, as well as, presents theintricate aspects of the Constitution in a clear manner. The bookpresents critical information on the parliamentary and presidentialsystems, the Senate, House of Representative, the Supreme Court, theeffectiveness of proportional or majoritarian democracies, and theElectoral College. Thus, it is an insightful book especially forreaders who want to gain information on the elements of democracy.Contentions about the relevance of Darl’s book to the modernAmerican society did not begin today. There have many questions thathave been answered through constitutional amendments. For example,the constitution had clauses such as the “fugitive clause” and“two-fifths” clause that recognized that many citizens in theearly years of American independence were slave-holders. Many yearslater, slavery became a question that the nation had to answerthrough very divisive politics that degenerated into a Civil Warafter the voting of the great Abraham Lincoln. When the federalgovernment won the civil war, slavery had to be abolished and theconstitution amended to suit want a majority of citizens demanded.Later in the early 19thcentury, another problem arose: the question of women suffrage. The19thAmendment was adopted and women began to vote and be activelyinvolved the nation’s politics and leadership. Darl’s book,therefore, reveals that perhaps, America should put another questionregardless of how divisive it may seem, the question of reforming theprocess of electing the president and representation of states in thesenate. America has changed tremendously and those changes shouldalso be reflected in its supreme law. While Darl paints a pessimisticpicture about the possibility of constitutional reforms that aim tomake the constitution more democratic, a subtle source of optimismlies in the ability of Americans to adjust to times. The fact thatDarl highlighted unique periods in American history when they stoodup for certain issues such as abolishing slavery, women’s suffrage,and civil rights for minority Americans reveals some consequentialwillpower in Americans. Perhaps the constitutional reforms that beenpointed out by Darl and many of his contemporaries may not be farfrom reality.


Dahl,Robert Alan. Howdemocratic is the American constitution?.Yale University Press, 2003.