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Fair Use Excerpt from


By Robert A. Dahl

Sterling Professor Ermeritus of Political Science, Yale.

copyright 2002 Yale University

Introduction: Fundamental Questions

MY AIM IN THIS BRIEF BOOK IS NOT TO PROPOSE changes in the American Constitution but to suggest changes in the way we think about our constitution. In that spirit, I'll begin by posing a simple question: Why should we Americans uphold our Constitution?

Well, an American citizen might reply, it has been our constitution ever since it was written in 1787 by a group of exceptionally wise men and was then ratified by conventions in all the states.1 But this answer only leads to a further question.

To understand what lies behind that next question, I want to recall how the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 was made up. Although we tend to assume that all thirteen states sent delegates, in fact Rhode Island refused to attend, and the delegates from New Hampshire didn't arrive until some weeks after the Convention opened. As a result, several crucial votes in June and July were taken with only eleven state delegations in attendance. Moreover, the votes were counted by states, and although most of the time most state delegations agreed on a single position, on occasion they were too divided internally to cast a vote.

My question, then, is this: Why should we feel bound today by a document produced more than two centuries ago by a group of fifty-five mortal men, actually signed by only thirty-nine, a fair number of whom were slaveholders, and adopted in only thirteen states by the votes of fewer than two thousand men, all of whom are long since dead and mainly forgotten?2

Our citizen might respond that we Americans are free, after all, to alter our constitution by amendment and have often done so. Therefore our present constitution is ultimately based on the consent of those of us living today.

But before we accept this reply, let me pose another question: Have we Americans ever had an opportunity to express our considered will on our constitutional system? For example, how many readers of these lines have ever participated in a referendum that asked them whether they wished to continue to be governed under the existing constitution? The answer, of course, is: none.

Our citizen might now fall back on another line of argument: Why should we change a constitution that has served and continues to serve us well?

Although this is surely a reasonable line of argument, it does suggest still another question: By what standards does our constitution serve us well? In particular, how well does our constitutional system meet democratic standards of the present day? I'll turn to this question in the next chapter.

And if our constitution is as good as most Americans seem to think it is, why haven't other democratic countries copied it? As we'll see in Chapter 3, every other advanced democratic country has adopted a constitutional system very different from ours. Why?

If our constitutional system turns out to be unique among the constitutions of other advanced democratic countries, is it any better for its differences, or is it worse? Or don't the differences matter? I'll explore this difficult question in the fourth chapter.

Suppose we find little or no evidence to support the view that our constitutional system is superior to the systems of other comparable democratic countries, and that in some respects it may actually perform rather worse. What should we conclude?

As one part of an answer, I am going to suggest that we begin to view our American Constitution as nothing more or less than a set of basic institutions and practices designed to the best of our abilities for the purpose of attaining democratic values. But if an important democratic value is political equality, won't political equality threaten the rights and liberties we prize? In Chapter 5, I'll argue that this view—famously defended by Tocqueville, among others—is based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between democracy and fundamental rights.

Yet the question remains: if our constitution is in some important ways defective by democratic standards, should we change it, and how? As I said, my aim here is not so much to suggest changes in the existing constitution as to encourage us to change the way we think about it, whether it be the existing one, an amended version of it, or a new and more democratic constitution. That said, in my final chapter I'll comment briefly on some possible changes and on the obstacles to achieving them.