“How Democratic is the American Constitution?”

February 6, 2014

Robert Dahl, professor of political science at Yale, has died at 98. He is the author, among many other books, of “How Democratic is the American Constitution?”, a slim, accessible volume of constitutional scholarship that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in clear thinking about the structure of our government, its responsiveness to contemporary needs, its resistance to change, and the issue of just how democratic it really is. Dahl asks, “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?” And this it seems to me, is the problem with originalist Constitutional interpretation — even if original intent is discernible at this late date, and even if any group of individuals, as opposed to a single individual, can really be said to intend any one thing, why would we submit our relations with one another to the dead hand of men who no longer bear the consequences of their preferences?