How Democratic Is the Constitution?

How Democratic Is the Constitution?

How Democratic Is the Constitution?

How Democratic Is the Constitution?

Excerpt

When the question, How democratic is the Constitution? was answered with a resounding, Not at all, by Charles A. Beard in 1913, there resulted an intense debate among public officials, political activists, and academicians that has not subsided to this day. It is not difficult to understand why that question was and is so engaging, for it has profound implications for the way we think about and behave toward the Constitution and for the way we understand ourselves as a nation.

We profess to be a democracy, indeed, the beacon of democratic liberty throughout the world. But if Beard was correct that the Constitution is undemocratic--that it was designed to protect the wealthy by frustrating popular majorities--then there is a great discrepancy between our nation's ideals and its institutions. That discrepancy would have an important bearing on the way we understand our politics: it would seem to explain many of its complexities, frustrations, and shortcomings. And that discrepancy would have, as it had during the Progressive Era, important implications for political action and reform: Should we not seek to bring our institutions into line with our ideals by "democratizing" the Constitution through the initiative, referendum, recall, and other devices?

But if Beard was not correct--if the Constitution is in fact democratic, or if it was designed to secure rights for all through representative institutions--then we would have to understand the relationship between our ideals and institutions differently: perhaps the institutions that Beard and others have denounced as obstacles to majority rule in fact ensure that majorities rule in a sober, decent fashion. If there is a discrepancy between American ideals and institutions, it may be that our modern notions of democracy should be brought into line . . .

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