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How Democratic is the American Constitution?

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Essay: How Democratic is the American Constitution?

In a series of works, political scientists Robert Dahl (b. 1915) and historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010) developed a fierce critique on the undemocratic nature of the early U.S. legislators. Following their findings and discussion, this paper reviews three aspects in which the American constitution failed to introduce several noteworthy democratic principles.

It also discusses the way in which the interplay between political, ideological and socio-economic factors caused a reluctance of the Framers to create a more comprehensive, just and balanced constitutional framework.

Election of the President
Very briefly speaking, the U.S. constitution facilitates an indirect election for the presidency. Under this method the president is formally elected by 538 popularly elected representatives (electors), known as the Electoral College, and not by the voters themselves. Instead, the citizens vote for electors, each one pledge to a specific candidate. However, the candidate who received the majority of electoral votes in a state usually captures all the latter’s electoral votes.

Moreover, the allocation of electors among the states is disproportional with population size. According to Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the number of electors in each state will be “equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Since every state has an equal number of Senators (two), it is clear that the relative weight of less populated states will be higher than their weight of the total U.S. population.

Explaining its emergence in terms of the framers’ wish to allocate the decision-making power “in the hands of a selct body of wise, outstanding, and virtuous citizens” (76), Dahl finds several “undemocratic […] inherent features of the electoral college” (79): first, he finds that in 18 presidential elections, or one in every three on average, the winning candidate was actually the one receiving the minority of votes (80), partially due to the “winner-takes-it-all system” (83). Second, votes caster to a third party candidate are practically deprived from the major opponents, causing an anomaly in which none of the latter receive the majority of votes, whereas the losing candidate may be actually preferred by the third candidate’s voters. The most recent example is the 2000 presidential elections, in which most voters for Ralph Nader would have presumably preferred Al Gore to his Republican opponent as a section option (Dahl 81). Third, as discussed earlier, the disproportion between population size and the composition of the electoral college brings about more than a few undemocratic phenomena; according to Dahl, “[t]he vote of a Wyoming resident, for example, is worth almost four times the vote of a Californian resident in the electoral college” (81).

Despite some advantages of the current method such as the (presumable) protection of the less populated states, I find that its flaws are much more significant. It seems necessary to abolish the ‘winner-takes-it-all system,’ as well as to allow direct elections. This measures would not only better represent the true will of the voter, but may also incentivize candidates to compete for every vote.

Tolerance of Slavery
The delegates at the Constitutional Convention strongly disagreed on the question of slavery; in fact, opposition to its abolishment was to be found not only among the delegates from the five southern countries, but also among some delegates from the north (Dahl 13). The preservation of slavery manifested in the denial of Congressional power to abolish slavery as well as in sanctioning the Fugitive Slave laws (which reinforced the status of slaves as property) (Dahl 16).

This undemocratic phenomenon (which resolved in the final abolishment of slavery in 1865 under the 13th Amendment) is usually explained in terms of the need to cooperate with the five southern states.

However, Zinn provides other plausible underpinnings of tolerance of slavery, including demographic fears from their weight in the population (which went over 50% in some counties, with a total of 25%) (50), the fact that many northern delegates held slaves themselves (64) and the lack of cultural environment that prescribes to notions of equal rights for all human beings, as discussed next.

Another fundamental flaw that has been resolved is the fact that “the constitution failed to guarantee the right of suffrage, leaving the qualifications of suffrage to the states,” and “implicitly left in place the exclusion of half the population — women — as well as African Americans and Native Americans” (Dahl 16). Zinn provides a clear explanation for this decision, noting that four groups “were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups” (65).

Suffrage and equal rights for women and minorities were granted in a gradual process, which peaked in the Nineteenth Amendment (1919), as well as in a later interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that practically outlawed discrimination (Dahl 28).

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