Opinion | Why I Ask More of America Than We Can Get – The New York Times
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As flawed and incomplete as the American Revolution was, there is no question that it unleashed an impulse toward democracy and political equality that has shaped our history and continues into the present. That impulse, however, is in tension with the Constitution, which not only structures American democracy but arguably was written to constrain it.
I write, on occasion, about the need to reform the structures of American government, from the Electoral College to the Senate itself. The immediate (and obvious) response from readers is often to ask “why?”
After all, the barrier to constitutional amendment is impossibly high. There is almost no chance that a two-thirds majority of Congress (and a three-fourths majority of the states) would, for example, vote to require direct popular election of the president and vice president. And the final clause of Article 5 of the Constitution — “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate” — is an insurmountable obstacle to ending the distortions caused by equal state representation in that chamber.
It is equally difficult, if not impossible, to imagine much in the way of reform to the unwritten parts of the American political order. The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review — which does not exist in the Constitution — is virtually untouchable. The two-party system is similarly resistant to change, for the simple reason that incumbent lawmakers would have to vote to radically transform the landscape in which they operate.
Yes, the odds of serious reform are low to the point of nonexistent, right now and for the foreseeable future. And yet I still think it’s worth it to make the case.
I should say that I am inspired here by the political scientist Robert Dahl, whose illustrious and influential career spanned most of the 20th century. Dahl was preoccupied with the democratic ideal, the actual mechanics of democracy and the profound distance between the two in even the most mature democratic states. Or, as he wrote in his 1998 book “On Democracy,” “In almost all, perhaps all, organizations everywhere there is some room for some democracy; and in almost all democratic countries there is considerable room for more democracy.”
An American, Dahl applied this maxim to his own country, writing, at the start of the new millennium, a book-length critique of our political institutions called “How Democratic is the American Constitution?”
Dahl, who was then in his late 80s, did not think that constitutional change of any kind was on the horizon. “My reflections lead me to a measured pessimism about the prospects for greater democratization of the American Constitution,” he wrote. “Changes … that would be desirable from a democratic point of view seem to me to have very little chance of coming about in the indefinite future.”
Still, Dahl made the argument. Not for the sake of change to the Constitution as much as for the sake of “changes in the way we think about our constitution.”
Most Americans revere the Constitution. Some even believe that it is divinely inspired. Few want fundamental change. But despite the way we often talk about it, the Constitution was not actually chiseled on stone tablets. “The Framers were not philosophers searching for a description of an ideal system,” wrote Dahl. “Nor — and we may be forever grateful to them for this — were they philosopher kings entrusted with the power to rule. They were practical men, eager to achieve a stronger national government, and as practical men they made compromises.”
To think about the framers as practical men making practical choices should lead us to think of their Constitution in practical terms. Does it serve us well? Does it meet the democratic standards of the present day? Does it, Dahl asks, help us “maintain the democratic system; protect fundamental democratic rights; ensure democratic fairness among citizens; encourage the formation of democratic consensus; and provide a democratic government that is effective in solving problems?”
Now the usual, and frankly facile, response to these kinds of questions is that the United States is a “republic” and not a “democracy.” This, I’ve argued before, is nonsense. When James Madison critiqued “pure democracy” in Federalist No. 10, he meant direct democracy, “a society consisting of a small number of persons, who assemble and administer the government in person.” A republic, by contrast, was government by representation. “The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic,” wrote Madison, “are first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; second, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of the country, over which the latter may be extended.”
To say that the present-day United States should be “more democratic” is to say that it should have greater representation and political equality, not that it should refashion itself into an Athenian-style assembly. Madison, for his part, would become an important figure in the democratization of American politics as the founder, with Thomas Jefferson, of the Republican (or Democratic-Republican) Party.
It is not for nothing that, toward the end of his long career as a practical politician, Madison defended in no uncertain terms the concept of political equality. Here he is, in 1821, criticizing the views of his younger self as they had been expressed at the Philadelphia Convention 34 years earlier.
Under every view of the subject, it seems indispensable that the Mass of Citizens not be without a voice, in making the laws which they are to obey, & in chusing the Magistrates, who are to administer them, and if the only alternative be between an equal & universal right of suffrage for each branch of the Govt. and a confinement of the entire right to a part of the Citizens, it is better that those having the greater interest at stake namely that of property & persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the Govt. than, that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole.
All of this is to say that I do not write about structural reform because I believe it will happen in my lifetime, although, of course, no one knows what the future will bring. I write about structural reform because, like Dahl, I want to think expansively about (and readers to think expansively about) American democracy, to understand that it is, and has always been, bigger than the Constitution.
If there is anything else useful in these arguments, it’s in how they make the lines of political conflict as clear as possible. There are, we cannot forget, Americans who do not believe in political equality and the democratic ideal, Americans with a narrow and circumscribed vision of “freedom” and “liberty.” A debate over reform can, in the course of the argument, drag those views out of the shadows and into the open.
I am fond of the expression, from the Gospel of Mark, that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I think it captures a basic truth: that our rules and institutions exist for us and our flourishing, not for their own sake. And if those rules and institutions do not work, if they constrain our aspirations or violate our sense of justice, then it is the role of people like me to agitate for at least a little change.
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