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Study Notes

Challenging Dahl's Undemocratic Elements

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 2 Jun 2017

In a debate on constitutional interpretations and democracy, you should be able to counter the claims made that the US Constitution is undemocratic. Before you read these you should have read Dahl's Seven Undemocratic Elements

Challenging Dahl’s Seven Undemocratic Elements

  1. The Framers created a democracy built in their time

The Framers created a democracy that was modern in the 1780s and not the 21st Century, what they created was ahead of its time then, whereas it is not now. Therefore, it is wrong to state that the writing of the Constitution is undemocratic when assessing now. The tolerance of slavery was par for the course at the time as was suffrage for men only. Whilst we may look back with hindsight, the Constitution was very much so a democratic document when it was written.

2. The need to compromise

When drafting the Constitution there was a real threat of invasion from the British, to take back the colonies lost during the American War of Independence. Therefore a strong government needed to be created but one which all parties signed up to, as a result compromise was inevitable. The final Constitution is one which the colonies agreed to which created the basis for a strong government under the threat of invasion.

 3. Subsequent Amendments

Subsequent Amendments have shown that the US Constitution is not the be all and end all. Where a democratic deficit has been identified, steps have been taken to address these such as the universal suffrage for women and African-Americans in the Fifteenth and Nineteenth amendments. In addition, voting restrictions have been removed though the prohibition of the poll tax under the terms of the Twenty Fourth amendment.

 4. Judicial Review

The Constitution does not mention judicial review, therefore it can be wrong to argue that the Constitution is undemocratic in this area. The Constitution sets out the Judicial Branch and if the Federal Government were unhappy with Judicial Review then it could pass a constitutional amendment to ban the process, using the prescribed democratic methods which the Constitution outlines.


This debate is not so much whether the US is democratic or not, but whether democracy is present in the US Constitution. It is for you to make up your mind on this and use evidence when answering any essay question on it. To be critical here you could challenge Dahl’s later arguments stating that they are not in the Constitution explicitly and that his work is perhaps mistitled?

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