There’s a book called “Our Undemocratic Constitution” I read this past summer and wanted to write a review for, but I found an amazing summary of the main points on JinnZaman’s website.  I also think it is quite relevant as I am discussing and looking at Islam and Democracy.

Is America *Really* a Democracy? 

Given the constant assertion that Islam is incompatible with liberal democratic capitalism and must therefore be confronted, attacked, and subdued, it might be prudent to take a moment to evaluate whether or not America, the so-called bastion of hope in the free world, is itself a democracy. A democracy is simply defined as governance by the people and for the people. America moved away from a compact between self-interested states under the articles of confederation into a purportedly more legitimate and democratic system under the Constitution. However, the Constitution has some major ideological and structural flaws. Is America closer to a democracy or a benevolent oligarchy? You be the judge, but before you decide, ponder over the following points made by Sanford Levinson in his seminal book “Our Undemocratic Constitution”:

(a) the disproportionate allocation of power in the Senate: Due to the fact that each state sends two representatives to the Senate, their is a huge disparity in voter power. Not including the number of people who don’t vote, 17% of the country votes for the majority of the Senate, which has longer terms than the House. This in and of itself debunks the assertion that legislation is based on majority rule or that ‘one man, one vote’ is the mantra of our government. If a minority of the people controls the more powerful branch of Congress, how is legislation representative of the will of the majority? Its no coincidence that many tiny states are more wealthy and more racially homogenized (i.e. they have less people of color) than larger states. Wait, lets not even get into a discussion of how wealthy senators (Over 40 of them are millionaires) are or how they cater to the needs of the wealthy.

(b) the potential for presidential dictatorship following an attack on Congress: If a devastating attack were to occur on Congress, it would create a vacuum of power that would most likely be filled in by a dictatorial executive. Under the Constitution, while the Senate would be replaced by governors from their respective states, the only way to fill in a vacant seat in the House is through elections. Generally speaking, whenever a catastrophic attack occurs, the Executive branch will kick into high gear and presumably launch an offensive military and political campaign. However, given that the most democratic branch of government, the House, would be incapacitated and engaging in the month-long process of filling up its vacancies and the other respective branch, the Senate, doesn’t even represent a quarter of the population in the country (let alone those who actually vote), any laws passed by such a Congress would be inherently undemocratic and would probably result in an excessive transfer of power to the Executive, most likely resulting in a political or military dictatorship.

(c) excessive presidential power: Three words for you: “George W. Bush”

(d) the undemocratic tendencies of the electoral college): How democratic are we if we need a group of people to vote for the President and aren’t even obliged or accountable to represent the popular vote? Sure, the electoral college has voted along the popular vote, but many times it hasn’t. Its like having sex without a condom. Eventually, someone is going to get pregnant, except, instead of being pregnant, the electoral college will elect someone that went against the popular vote, and that person will probably be a dictator. Wait, hasn’t this already happened? (Hint: G.WB)

(e) the dangerous gap between presidents and their successors

(f) the inability to discard of an incompetent president: The president of this administration has feigned evidence to invade a sovereign independent nation and is responsible for various war crimes committed there (Iraq), he has supported the overthrow of another legitimate sovereign nation (Somalia), and also been aware of various violations of civil liberties in this country and abroad (wiretapping, torture flights, etc). Yet, none of this makes him eligible for impeachment? In fact, even if 99% of the country desired to impeach him, they wouldn’t be able to do so since the power of impeachment lies in the hands of Congress who aren’t in and of themselves truly representative of the will of the people. Remember, only 17% of the US population elects the majority of the Senate. Lets not even get into the gerrymandering issues pertaining to the House. A true democracy would not only elect a leader (which we don’t) but also remove him when necessary, like the Greeks and the Romans did.

(g) the functional impossibility of ridding the Constitution of its structural defects given the difficulties in passing amendments: If America isn’t democratic in most of its branches of government and the remedy to changing the structural flaws in the Constitution are virtually impossible, then how is it democratic? Most of the amendments in the Constitution occurred in three phases: (a) after the ratification of the Constitution, (b) the Civil War, and (c) the Progressive Era. However, none of these periods were democratic in the sense that they represented the people. The era of the founding fathers doesn’t really count to see if the amendment system was functional because the people who wrote the Constitution passed the first ten amendments. The next major amendments came after the Civil War, which occurred at the barrel of the gun since the victorious North wouldn’t allow Southern states into the Union in an equal manner if they didn’t approve those amendments. That can hardly be considered democratic. The Progressive era passed a lot of amendments, but some of them were frivolous and had nothing to do with governance itself such as the amendments prohibiting sale of alcohol and those that repealed them. Then you have those amendments that granted voting rights to 18 year olds, and while this is probably more democratic, the qualification age for office wasn’t lowered. Thus, if you’re 18 years old and you can vote, its meaningless since you can’t identify with most of the candidates since they are twice your age. This might not seem like a big deal but think of war time situations. How many of the fat cats in Congress would vote in favor of war or war time powers to the President if they were in an age group where the people who would be fighting and dying were their close friends and family? Probably not.

(h) the anti-majoritarian nature of life tenure for Supreme Court justices: A completely unelected branch of government whose members have life terms are given the power to say what the Constitution is? How is THAT democratic?

(i) the creation of second-class citizens by denying qualifications based on age, duration of citizenship, and place of habitation.

After pondering these points, do you still feel America is a democracy in any sense of the word?

More importantly, if America is not a democracy and the people are not in power, then who is?

If you want to be part of a larger intellectual discourse that evaluates the democratic tendencies or the lack thereof within the Constitution, you should attend the upcoming conference “A More Perfect Constitution” that will be happening in Washington DC next Friday.