Sunday, October 22, 2006

Does the Constitution Matter?

A new book challenges the very foundation of American democracy (right in time for election season!). Sanford Levinson, who teaches law at the University of Texas at Austin, raises some deep doubts about the democratic worth of the American Constitution in his new book, "Our Democractic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It). He previews his arguments here.

Some of his concerns are echoed by the eminent theorist of democracy, Robert Dahl, in his book "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" (A book I always use in my philosophy of law class). One of the more interesting claims they raise is whether the American constitution actually preserves the value of political equality among citizens.

We all live with the conception that our vote/voice matters (as long as we bother to exercise it). This is usually spelled out as "one person, one vote", unlike the system proposed by John Stuart Mill where some citizens might be allocated more votes based on intelligence or specialized knowledge . But does this equality actually obtain or is it a myth about our democracy that our vote counts just as much as any other?

Levinson and Dahl both point out that the Senate works to make equality among citizens doubtful. For instance, 35 million people live in the state of California, but it has just as much representation as the state of Wyoming with only 500,000 people. This means one senator in California can represent about 6.5 million votes, while one senator in Wyoming only has to contend with about 150,000. Small state voters have an incredible amount of power to block the decisions of millions of other citizens. In his own work, Dahl points out that this kind of power imbalance contributed substantially to the kind of gridlock that sustained slavery in the United States up to the Civil War.

Dahl thinks that there are some severe undemocratic features of the Constitution, but is pessimistic that anything can really be done about it at the federal level (largely because any changes have to be ratified by the Senate and small states are unlikely to give up their unequal share of power). Levinson argues we need a new constitutional convention to rethink the fundamental building blocks of our political order. Cass Sunstein points out that this is a very Jeffersonian move in his review of the book. (part two of his review is here)

Have we gotten to the point where we need a radical transformation of our constitutional framework? Sunstein has his doubts and worries that if we open up the Constitution to comment now it could turn into a Pandora's box where people would be willing to do away with all sorts of constitutional protections and liberties. Does the Constitution, as it currently stands, matter anymore?



At 10:03 AM , Blogger Ray Gattavara said...

The Constitution matters, but it needs to be viewed as a guide, rather than words/ideas/laws etched forever onto stone. No signer of the US Constitution had a clue as to what kind of society America would become 230 years later. Especially in the high technology sector. Simply put, there are too many people (300 million) in America to justify allowing approx. 500,000 politicians/judges to make all the decisions for the rest of us. WE need to make the decisions, and those decisions must be binding on all three branches of the government.


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