How Democratic is the U.S. Constitution?
Americans generally revere their constitution, an 18th century document that
has only been substantially revised a handful of times in almost two and a
half centuries. When confronted with the counter-democratic features of
the US Constitution—such as malapportionment in the Senate, or judicial
supremacy—many, perhaps most, Americans respond by pointing out that
such features help guard against the dangers of “tyranny of the majority,” a
risk that worried such thinkers as James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville.
How real is this danger? Should popular majorities be constrained at all in
a democratic political system? If so, under what conditions and how? What
does the US look like in comparison to other rich democracies with respect
to representing the preferences of the political majority? This course will
take a close look at the origins and consequences of the US Constitution
and how it structures democratic politics today. The course also provides
some comparative perspective by drawing on the political institutional
frameworks of other countries. We will discuss the meaning of elections
and majority rule, as well as the conditions, if any, under which majorities
should be overridden by the interests of a political minority. The course
involves short weekly readings (including the US Constitution!), class
discussion, and a micro-research project.