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An imperfect Constitution

Hendrik Hertzberg's review (in the New Yorker) of Robert Dahl's How Democratic Is the American Constitution? is well worth the read:

Dahl's main points form an argument that goes roughly like this. Wise and great though the framers were, their vision was circumscribed by what they knew, what they mistakenly thought they knew, and what they lived too soon to have any way of knowing. Even within those limits, they were hobbled by the political necessities of a particular moment, which forced them to swallow provisions to which the most eminent among them were strongly (and rightly) opposed. Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an explosion of democratic theory, experience, and practice yielded up an abundance of new democratic norms and mechanisms. A few of these (such as the direct popular election of senators) were incorporated into the formal Constitution, and a few more (such as the idea of competing political parties and the practice of allowing citizens to vote for Presidential electors) were jury-rigged into the informal constitutional structure. But many others were not, and, despite American power, the American system has not been a model for other democracies. Although it's difficult to separate constitutional systems from other factors affecting national well-being, there is no reason to believe that the American system does a better job than the democratic alternatives, and quite a few reasons to believe that it does a worse one.

The details of the argument (which Hertzberg provides) are of course both more informative and more agonizing. That the framers of the Constitution should have invented an imperfect democratic system isn't much of a surprise (rather, it would have been remarkable had they somehow got it right on the first try), but that the Constitution's flaws should themselves frustrate any attempt to fix them is more cruel than it is ironic.

July 24, 2002 4:33 PM

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