In what ways is the Constitution both democratic and undemocratic?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To answer this question properly, we first have to understand what democracy means. The word comes from two Greek words: demos, meaning the people, and kratos , meaning authority or power. In other words, in a democracy, political power is in the hands of the people. A pure democracy...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

To answer this question properly, we first have to understand what democracy means. The word comes from two Greek words: demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning authority or power. In other words, in a democracy, political power is in the hands of the people. A pure democracy would have every citizen in a country given an equal voice in how the government is run. In practice, the larger the population of a country, the more impossible this becomes. Instead, large countries opt for an indirect or representative democracy, which involves rule by representatives of the people instead of the people themselves. This is the type of government decided upon by the founding fathers of the United States when they crafted the Constitution. In fact, they preferred to use the term "republic" rather than "democracy" to describe the government they were initiating through this document. The word "democracy" is not found once in the entire Constitution of the United States, and neither is it found in the Declaration of Independence.

That said, the Constitution of the United States is democratic in that it attempts to set up a limited representative democracy in the form of a republic. In the beginning, though, this representation was only by a small elite portion of the population, all of whom were white males.

Using the strict definition of democracy, the US Constitution in the beginning was more undemocratic than democratic, at least until the addition of certain amendments that added disenfranchised portions of the populations to the ranks of voters. For instance, the Constitution allowed slavery and granted African Americans only three-fifths of the status of a person for the purpose of censuses. It was not until after the Civil War that the 13th amendment abolished slavery and the 14th amendment gave full citizenship to freed slaves.

The US Constitution ignored half of the country's citizens when it did not give women the right to vote. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920 when the 19th amendment was added. As a footnote to this, an amendment to grant equal rights to women has still not managed to be ratified by a sufficient number of states.

Native Americans were not recognized as citizens and so were not given rights in the Constitution.

Besides these oversights in the Constitution, some of the ways that the US government was set up are undemocratic. For example, the President of the United States is not elected by a popular vote of the people but rather by a group of electors called the Electoral College. Additionally, each state, regardless of its size, is represented in the Senate by two senators. In a true representative democracy, the amount of representatives would more accurately reflect populations.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The US Constitution is democratic since it sets up the framework by which citizens elect their representatives in the Executive and Legislative branches. It also lays out the responsibilities and power of these representatives. In this sense, the Constitution provides for a representative democracy in which the voters elect leaders who (hopefully) represent their wishes and needs.

However, there are some undemocratic elements to the Constitution. The Judicial Branch, for instance, is made up of justices who are appointed by our elected leaders but who are not themselves elected to their offices. Also, until the implementation of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislators and not directly elected by the people. Furthermore, the president can use their veto power to override the votes of a majority of Congress.

Another undemocratic aspect of the Constitution would be the electoral college. In a true democracy, all votes have the same weight. In our current system under the electoral college, votes have different weight depending upon which state they were cast in. In fact, when you vote for president, you are not actually voting for the candidate; rather, you are voting for electors who in turn cast votes for the presidential candidates. This may have democratic elements to it, but it does not represent democracy in its purest form.

The original drafters of the Constitution did not want the country to be a pure democracy. Even though we live in a republic with many democratic elements and safeguards built in to prevent tyranny, they were afraid that giving the people all the power would lead to chaos and what they termed the "tyranny of the mob."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Constitution of the United States is both democratic and non-democratic in that it seeks to represent all the people in the nation but falls short of direct participatory democracy. Instead, it features a form of representative democracy where people elect others to represent large segments of the population.

The word democratic can be explained to mean one person gets one vote—but the constitution doesn't follow this basic plan. Instead, it created a representative democracy. People vote for their representatives and those representatives vote as they please—there is no mechanism that requires them to vote for the will of the people they represent.

Also, not all people are equally represented. The Connecticut Compromise gave each state two senators, no matter how populous it was. This means that in some cases, two senators represent very few people in comparison to senators from larger, more populous states.

There are also several undemocratic ideas in the original constitution, some of which have been removed via amendment. They include:

  • slavery
  • lack of voting rights for women and non-white people
  • the appointment of senators

However, the ideals of democracy written into the constitution have stood through the years, especially as it has been amended to better represent the entire population. Everyone gets to vote for representatives and those representatives have equal power, in theory. That is a very democratic aspect of the constitution.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is primarily undemocratic in the sense that it does not provide for direct voter participation, but for representatives who make decisions and then must stand for re-election. I would imagine that direct democracy could run amuck if it were applied too often.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It depends on whether or not you are referring to the original constitution. The main way in which the constitution is democratic is that it allows people rights of expression in the Bill of Rights, which is a list of amendments. The constitution can be amended through a democratic process because the elected representatives of the people are the ones amending it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are important ways in which the constitution is not democratic. For example:

  • It does not give the vote to women.
  • It allows slavery.
  • It has the president being elected by an electoral college, not by the people.
  • It has (originally) senators being elected by state legislatures, not by the people.

In these ways, you can say it is undemocratic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The constitution certainly created and helps to uphold a democratic nation. It outlines and sets in place a particular democratic government and set of laws. It could be argued, however, that the creation of this document was notably undemocratic. The men who wrote the constitution were not necessarily elected. Certainly they were great leaders, but there was no formal election process in place to select them to write this document. The constitution was written behind closed doors and signed by the authors. It was not voted on in the same way that laws and bills are voted on today. The people of the newly forming American nation didn't have the same ability to offer input and make a selection that we enjoy today.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team