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Study Notes

Dahl's Seven Undemocratic Elements

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 2 Jun 2017

There is considerable debate as to how democratic the US actually is. One set of arguments come from political scientist Robert A Dahl.

In his book How Democratic is the American Constitution, he outlines seven undemocratic elements that are contained within the US Constitution. Before he detailed this seven undemocratic elements he detailed what he thought was democratic. Dahl’s theory states that nations which adhere to a one person, one vote or majority rule were more democratic than others.


Dahl’s Seven Undemocratic Elements:

  1. Slavery

In the initial writing of the Constitution, it tolerated slavery as a result of the three fifths compromise, and it took until the American Civil War for this tolerance of slavery to be removed.

 2. Voting Rights

Again during the drafting of the Constitution the voting rights of women and minorities were not protected by Constitutional law and took many years to come to fruition.

 3. Electoral College

Representation in the Electoral College is not proportional due to the addition of two extra seats as a result of the Senators for that state. Electors are also appointed rather than chosen by ballot in many states. The system of safe seats and winner take all methods in results undermines the democratic one man one vote element of Presidential elections.

 4. Representation in the Senate

Each state has two senators regardless of size, which Dahl argues is undemocratic as smaller states have an increased prominence than they would otherwise have.

 5. Election of Senators

When writing the Constitution, the Senate was to be appointed by the states rather than elected. It wasn’t until the Seventeenth Amendment that direct election was introduced.

 6. Judicial Power

Judges can rule on the constitutionality of laws and decrees, and combined with the life tenure and high barriers to removal make them inherently undemocratic. Dahl is a strong believer in the ‘legislating from the bench

7. Limitations of Congressional Power

Judicial rulings limit Congressional power such as that in the area of income tax, it wasn’t until the passing of the sixteenth amendment allowing federal income tax that Congress could fully utilise the tax and spend clause that is present in the Constitution.

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