Reading Robert Dahl on democracy and political science is always a pleasure. I first encountered him while taking an upper-division course at the University of Washington in the spring of 1985 called “American Democracy.” We encountered his description of the American political system as “polyarchal democracy” and it stuck with me. At intervals over the last 20 years, I’ve gone back and read many of Dahl’s books, including his fairly recent “How Democratic is the American Constitution? Second Edition”. The latter seems to be aimed at a more popular audience than many of his other books, although there is still much of interest to serious students of the American constitutional system.
Dahl answers the title question by surveying the various departures from “fair” representation present in our constitutional system, by analysis of the pragmatic tradeoffs made by the Framers and Federalists, and through comparison with more recent democratic constitutional systems worldwide. The list of problems should come as no surprise to anyone: amending the Constitution through Article V requires a super-human effort today, with a tiny portion of the population able to exercise effective veto over the amendment process, the Senate provides drastically unequal representation on a effective-votes-per-person basis to small states, and the electoral college gives similar weight to small state voters in electing the Presidency.
In focusing on these issues as the yardstick of whether our Constitution is “democratic,” Dahl centers his analysis of the “quality” of democracy around adherence to the one-person-one-vote principle. In using this principle, Dahl is (somewhat explicitly) dismissing any claims that states (as holistic entities) may have for representation of state-level interests in the federal system. To be clear, Dahl is not denigrating the structural principle of federalism, insofar as it serves the role of providing local self-government, separation of powers, and division of responsibilities, but he is saying that “state’s aren’t people, and don’t deserve representation – only people do.” Whether this is a controversial working definition of democracy or not, Dahl does use this principle to point out the quantitative effects of unequal representation in the Senate and electoral college, and one is left fairly convinced that regardless of one’s stance regarding “liberal” versus “conservative” policies, democratic self-government in this country would be better served if it were possible to reform the Senate and Electoral College.
The latter part of the book is given over to an evaluation of the reform possibilities for these shortcomings. Dahl is not at all optimistic about reforming unequal representation in the Senate; doing so via the Article V process requires the highest bar of all — unanimity among all 50 states, since Article V guarantees that no state’s representation in the Senate shall be altered without the permission of that state. And the prospects of amendment to improve the democratic character of our government flow from there — unequal Senate representation will make it exceedingly difficult to reform the Electoral College and institute direct popular election of the Presidency, or to ensure that one-person-one-vote is more than a formal principle, but is the way our electoral system works in practice. Thus, Dahl recommends focusing on simpler electoral reforms, achievable without Senate super-majorities. States have the power to choose Presidential electors via their own internal rules, as well as set rules for Congressional elections. This means that state-level, or national (but not Congressional) campaigns to reform winner-takes-all voting in favor of instant runoff elections and the splitting of electoral votes according to the strict popular vote count (e.g., Maine) could be effective ways to begin serious democratic reform.
Dahl’s book is refreshing after reading immense amounts of constitutional law, focusing as it does on what citizens can do to reform elected officials, rather than reform-through-litigation strategies that center on the Supreme Court. Dahl is sobering but inspiring, and well worth reading regardless of your level of previous exposure to the issues or arguments.