Thursday, January 29, 2009

Robert Dahl: What a Pessimist

(I actually read Robert Dahl's How Democratic is the American Constitution? quite awhile ago, but I still feel compelled to share my impressions.)

The United States Constitution has a near-mythological status in American society, and with good reason. The United States is the oldest constitutional representative democracy in the world; today, a mere 230 years after its founding, it stands as the world's only superpower in terms of military, economic, and cultural influence.

Dahl, however, seems to feel that American self-congratulatory pride is largely misplaced and even naive. Quite simply, among other mature democracies, American democracy is sorely lacking. Its hybrid majoritarian-proportional government possesses the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither; Dahl also points to European surveys that reveal that citizens are most politically satisfied in nations with proportional representation. For one, the Supreme Court wields entirely too much power and the President is held to impossible standards and looked upon with a disquieting mixture of awe and derision. Most of Dahl's attacks are directed at the United States Senate, in which he feels small states, thanks to the Connecticut Compromise, have too much power for their minority status. This, he asserts, has enabled ultra-conservative Southern states to block both anti-slavery and pro-civil rights legislation, even when it was desired by the majority of the national population. The federalist system of government, meanwhile, is pointless and useless.

*Sigh* So what is he going to do about it? Seriously, I'm often annoyed by these scary and/or pessimistic books that do their utmost to disturb, frighten, and alarm, only to more or less tell the reader to get on with their life once the last page has been turned. I suppose raising awareness is a good thing, but sometimes I wonder if most public intellectuals are convinced that either life sucks or that some sort of apocalypse is on the horizon. (THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING! THE MUSLIMS ARE COMING! No fool! THE FASCISTS ARE COMING!) Heck, our government is still a whole lot better than most out there. Where else has a member of a historically oppressed minority group (who isn't even a member of a wealthy or powerful family) been elected to lead the nation that used to oppress him?

Okay, so maybe the US government is democratically lame compared to other wealthy countries in a strictly technical sense. But still, I may not have voted for Obama, but even I have to admit that it's been truly inspiring how politically enthusiastic people have been this past year. I remember one newscaster saying that he had never seen such excitement over the democratic process outside one of those Third World places that finally have elections after years of civil war and/or dictatorship. I wonder if Dahl realizes that there is so much more to American politics than formal government.

(I mean, seriously. You folks gotta strike to get anything done?)


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