Dahl’s “How Democratic Is the American Constitution?”


Although almost all modern countries have written constitutions, most of which formally conform to liberal-democratic principles and speak about the rule of law, the level of well-being, and other significant circumstances, the lives of people in these countries are very different. Although the U.S. Constitution was focused on federalism, as well as individualism and religious tolerance, and provides intellectual freedom with freedom of economic maneuver, it never mentions democracy.

The United States Constitution is considered to be the first document of this type and is the world’s oldest and shortest current Constitution. It was adopted on 17 September 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (Bodenhamer, 2018). During its time, the Constitution has undergone a substantial revision made with the help of amendments – 27 amendments to this document have been adopted.

The U.S. Constitution consists of the Preamble and seven Articles, some of which are broken down into Sections. Article 1 grants the right to adopt laws to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The second article gives the President the highest rights of the executive power. The third one gives the courts legal rights and defines that the resolutions of the Supreme Court are final (Bodenhamer, 2018). The remaining articles describe the order of relation between the federal government and all states, and the principles of amendments and additions to the text.

The U.S. Constitution has been drawing criticism for some time. In current circumstances, many of its provisions can be interpreted in ambiguous terms. In particular, the fundamental democratic principle of “one citizen – one vote” is not recorded in the document. The Constitution did not initially determine which U.S. citizens have the voting power. As a consequence, for years, only a tiny part of Americans participated in the elections. They were initially white men who possessed individual property.

Only later amendments gave voting rights to the poor, Afro-Americans, women, and Indians. Among others, the U.S. Constitution did not prohibit slavery, although many Founding Fathers of the States were fierce opponents of slavery. The constitutional prohibition of slavery was not introduced until 1865 when the 13 Amendment was adopted after the Civil War (Dahl, 2003).

Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2003) also critically assesses various provisions of the Constitution. His scientific interest in the topic is a contradiction between the way American citizens both believe in democracy and still remain loyal to their Constitution. He also wondered why, if the American Constitution was so universal, other countries had not taken an example from it while drafting their documents. Dahl asks his readers to look critically at this document and consider whether it can be better, more democratic.

Brief Robert Dahl’s Biography and his Contribution to Political Sciences

Robert Alan Dahl (1915-2014) is a well-known American political scientist, one of the founders of the theory of pluralistic democracy (Mayhew, 2018). Since 1946 he worked at Yale University, where he received the highest academic title – Sterling Professor of Political Science. For many years of his professional activity, Dahl has repeatedly won prestigious prizes. In 1995 he became the first winner of the international scientific award of Johan Skytte in Political Sciences (Mayhew, 2018).

His scientific work, “Who Governs?” was in the list of the hundred most influential books of the second half of the twentieth century. His scientific focus is on the problems of transformation of political systems, the balance of freedom, equality, and democracy. He is more famous among political scientists as the author of the term “polyarchy,” which means a particular type of political regime characterized by two main features: pluralism and opposition (Mayhew, 2018).

Dahl notes that the appearance during the latter half of the twentieth century of several theories of democracy, such as rational-utilitarian, institutional, economic, modernization, etc., led to the erosion of the democracy concept content. After that, the concept was presented in scientific spheres in different forms:

  • as the political organization of society, based on recognition of the people as the primary source of power;
  • as the philosophical, idealistic vision of human beings;
  • as political participation, models of activity of various public institutions, and much more.

Therefore, to characterize democracy as a form of the political regime and divide it from the ideal type of power, scientist R. Dahl proposed to use a new term – “polyarchy”.

His study of democracy, and related concepts, could not miss the legal basis of the American state – the Constitution. In his book, How Democratic is the American Constitution?, published in 2002, he argues that the U.S. Constitution is less democratic than it should be. He meticulously chooses and discusses critical problems necessary for understanding the democracy level of this document. Moreover, the scientist defines questions that call readers to independent reflection and conclusions.

The Main Issues Discussed in the How Democratic is the American Constitution?

Political scientist Dahl compared the U.S. Constitution to the primary laws of the twenty-one industrially developed states of the world, where democracy has existed since at least 1950 (Dahl, 2003). In the evaluation, he used the following next criteria: the quality of federalism (in particular, the division of powers between the federal center and local authorities), the quality of bicameral parliamentarians (for example, the equal authority of the lower and upper houses of parliament), the quality of legal control (for example, the ability of the judiciary to influence decisions of the executive and legislative authorities), the electoral system, etc.

The analysis showed that federalism is present in the constitutional systems of 16 states (absent in 6), bicameral parliamentarians – in 4 (absent, in 18), legal control – in 3 (absent in 19). Only three countries – the USA, New Zealand, and Australia – have bipartisan systems (in New Zealand, it disappeared in 2000). And only one country – the United States – has a presidential republic, the rest is parliamentary ones (Dahl, 2003). Dahl concluded that such differences, paradoxically, had little impact on the “quality” of countries, such as economic development, the protection of human rights, living standards, etc.

The author emphasizes that despite the criticism he gives in his book, the Founders Fathers were outstanding people for their time. Some circumstances, which they could not influence, limited their actions. For example, the republican form and the federal system were indispensable conditions for the establishment of a viable state. Moreover, they were limited by fears, and prejudices of their time, for example, feared British expansion, Indian attacks, etc. In addition, a tiny part of the population could be considered educated.

Paradoxically, the Constitutional Convention, which drafted and adopted the Constitution’s text, was attended by representatives of not all of the 13 states. Rhode Island State refused to send representatives to Philadelphia (Dahl, 2003). Rhode Island lawmakers considered that the federal government could intervene in their internal affairs in this way. The Convention was to be attended by 74 state-appointed delegates; however, only 55 of them participated de facto (Dahl, 2003).

Dahl’s main achievement in this book is that he has singled out and substantiated undemocratic elements. First of all, the Constitution established the principle of the enforcement of judicial authority. The U.S. Judges may declare unconstitutional any decision of the authorities or any law adopted by the legislature, even if the American President signs the decision, and the law was adopted as a result of Congress’s choice (Dahl, 2003).

Judges in the United States are holding office for their whole life and are thus fully independent. However, this practice may devalue legitimate solutions of the executive and legislative governments. One more element, this practice, as well as gaps in the provisions of the Constitution, meant that the U.S. Congress had limited authority (Dahl, 2003). For example, it could not influence the formation of economic and tax policies for a long time. These options were initially transferred to individual states that might not have obeyed the decisions of the national parliament.

Then, according to the Constitution, there are two senators in the U.S. Senate from each state. Their number is constant and does not depend on the state’s population size (Dahl, 2003). The initiators of including this principle in the fundamental law were small states, which feared that states with large populations would be able to dictate their will to the whole country. At the same time, the senators’ appointment had to take place on state legislatures without direct elections (Dahl, 2003).

The next element is that the President is not chosen by direct vote but is chosen by the Electoral College members. These are state representatives who vote based on voting results in their home states. The College creation was due to a number of then-present realities: there was no national media or political parties; there was no communication system (Dahl, 2003). Thus, politicians were known only on the territory of one or more states but had no chance of becoming popular on a national scale.

The last two elements were already mentioned above but should be re-emphasized. The Constitution did not protect the suffrage of most American citizens. Initially, only wealthy white men had the right to vote. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-fourth Amendments changed the provision and allowed African-Americans, women, and Indians to vote during the elections (Dahl, 2003). The last and the most crucial Constitution’s undemocratic elements highlighted by Dahl is tolerance for slavery. The document does not prohibit slavery, as it was necessary for cooperation with the Southern States. The ban was officially documented only after the end of the civil war with the help of the amendment.

Despite the respect and undisputed intelligence of the founding fathers, laws could not take into account the future, and some of them may be outdated in the modern environment. The scientist concluded that the Constitution was intended to protect the interests of only wealthy residents of the United States; it diminished the importance of democratic ideas, etc. Nevertheless, these elements should not be considered deliberately undemocratic. Their inclusion was important in the conditions in which the Founding Fathers were forced to work. They are the result of compromises and choices necessary for the establishment of a State.

Support and Criticism of Dahl’s Work

The central aspect in which some scholars agree, and which Dahl described in his research, is the authority of the U.S. juridical system. Many consider too much power that is given to them. The Supreme Court has a key role in interpreting the U.S. Constitution and can play a decisive role in explaining other acts. This court is the apex of one of the three branches The Supreme Court has a key instrument – judicial review, in which it can even dismiss a law passed by the legislature as unconstitutional. Thus, members of the Court have always been resolutely independent even from the state’s head who singes the document about their appointment. The lack of clear constitutional grounds for the crucial functions of the Court was the consequence and reason for giving them powers not clearly indicated in the U.S. Constitution.

According to Sabato (2007), author of A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revise Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country, the Constitution requires serious reforms. In particular, he proposes to give up the four-year presidential term and move to a six-year term, with the possibility of prolongation for another two years by referendum. Sabato (2007) calls for a reformation of the justice sphere, a significant increase in the number of congress members, etc. However, he notes that the creators of the U.S. Constitution never expected the core law to exist forever as it was adopted. He cites Thomas Jefferson saying that people cannot make one eternal law (Sabato, 2007).

Researches not only support Dahl’s work but also have critical comments. Gordon (2002), for example, identified two aspects which, in his opinion, are the failure of the book. The first disadvantage is the exclusion from the condemnation of the significant advantages of the federal system and its democratic features. Secondly, objections to majoritarianism are not sufficiently convincing (Gordon, 2002).

He believes that the author did not provide enough arguments to demonstrate the advantages of unitary states and ignored the benefits that federalism provides. Gordon (2002) is sure that such a system favors freedom and democracy through competition between states. Moreover, he highlights the contradiction that arises in Dahl’s text itself. Describing the benefits of consensus and proportional systems, the author of the book misses that American federalism also represents such a consensus.


The U.S. Constitution was written by three dozen people in just 100 working days (Dahl, 2003). They managed to create a document of extreme importance that allowed the development of a powerful country. The text of the U.S. Constitution never uses the word “democracy.” The American Constitution was not an ideal document. It originally contained provisions that now could be considered ambiguous.

The United States Founding Fathers did not create democracy in its modern meaning, but a republic. They did not entirely trust the wisdom of the Americans and their ability to make balanced decisions. However, it can be argued that there were no democratic states, and even full-fledged republics were rare. In these circumstances, the U.S. Constitution granted significant rights and freedoms to a record number of residents of the country. Dahl calls on citizens to think critically about the content of the American Constitution, its undemocratic elements and ask themselves what can be improved in a contemporary environment.


Bodenhamer D. J. (2018). The U.S. Constitution: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Dahl, R.A. (2003). How Democratic is the American Constitution? Yale University Press.

Gordon D. (2002). Democracy’s False Prophet. Mises Review 8 (3), 198.

Mayhew, D. R. (2018). Robert A. Dahl, 1915-2014: A biographical memoir. National Academy of Sciences.

Sabato, L. J. (2007). A more perfect constitution: 23 proposals to revise our Constitution and make America a fairer country. Walker & Company.

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