Dahl, Robert

Dahl, Robert

Bio: (1915– 2014) American political scientist. Robert Dahl graduated from the University of Washington and got his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1940. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and after the war, he returned to Yale, where he taught until 1986. Dahl was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1967.

In Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Dahl argued that plural societies are able to achieve democratic success if cleavages based on race, gender, wealth, power, and others are cross-cutting (memberships do not overlap) and don't reinforce each other. In the same book, he posits that majority voting doesn’t constitute a crucial threat to civil liberties and democracy.

In the article “The Concept of Power” (1957), Dahl put forward a new definition of power:  “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Dahl argued that this definition can be useful for comparing the power of two political actors in some given sphere, and to do so five factors have to be taken into account:” (1) differences in the basis of their power, (2) differences in means of employing the basis, (3) differences in the scope of their power, i.e., in the type of response evoked, (4) differences in the number of comparable respondents, and (5) differences in the change in probabilities, or M”. (1957: 205-206)

Dahl, in the book Who Governs? (1961), wanted to counter theories of the power elite, championed by Wright Mills and Floyd Hunter, which states that a small number of powerful people (elite) rules American political life. Dahl, in contrast, promotes the pluralist theory of political power. In order to test his theory empirically Dahl created a rigid research design that was based on several premises: 1) the concept of power has to include the ability to change another person's behavior and that power has to be researched separately from the resources used to gain power; (2) that power should be observed by constructing the case studies of political action; (3) their power of an individual is not necessarily on the same level in different domains of political action, (4) power should define in terms of the goals of the actors themselves adopt.

Dahl conducted his empirical study of political power in the city of New Haven, Connecticut. He found out that in each of the sectors of action, different individuals and groups (who were sometimes in competition with each other) had the most power, with no office holder or business leader having predominant power. The only exception was the mayor, who was powerful in all of the sectors, but, at the same time, he was accountable to voters, so his power was not unchecked. Non-elected interest groups had influence and power over the decision-making process which Dahl saw as a positive correction and a way to introduce public interest beyond strict representative democracy. Dahl’s findings supported his pluralistic theory of political power.

Dahl’s most famous and influential book is Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971). Dahl first used the term “polyarchy” in the book Politics, Economics, and Welfare (1953), co-written with Charles Lindblom, which they used to refer to a process in which non-leaders control leaders. In his 1971 book Dahl substantially developed and revised the concept. The new conception of polyarchy presented a modified vision of democracy. While true democracy is ideal and is not achievable in real life, polyarchy was achievable and had institutional arrangements that approximate that ideal. Polyarchy had two main dimensions 1) public contestation - open, free, fair, stable, and balanced electoral political competition between different individuals, groups, and forces; 2) inclusive suffrage and political participation -wide participation of citizens in the democratic process.

These two dimensions can be divided further into eight variables: “(1) freedom to form and join organizations, (2) freedom of expression, (3) right to vote,  (4) eligibility for public office, (5) right of political leaders to compete for support, (6) alternative sources of information, (7)  free and fair elections, and (8) preservation of governmental accountability”. The main goal of polyarchy is to have plural centers of interest and power, with no group or individual monopolizing all the power. For polyarchy to function properly people have to accept the legitimacy of elections and the authority of elected officials. By Dahl’s account, the US was the first country to achieve polyarchy in history. To ensure full polyarchy all classes and demographic groups regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender have to have similar political representation, inclusion, and participation. Having a large part of the population consisting of disadvantaged groups, like the poor is the greatest threat to polyarchy.

In the books Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (1982) and A Preface to Economic Democracy (1985), Dahl looked into solutions to problems of political apathy, economic and social inequality, lack of mobility and cohesion, and institutional rigidity, that plagued American democracy. He suggested that the solution to those problems is to transform US private enterprise economy into a system of employee-ownership of companies, so they can enfranchise blue and white-collar workers.

In  Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl identified seven characteristics needed for a functioning democracy:  free and fair elections, elected officials, inclusive suffrage, freedom of expression, right to run for office, access to alternative information, and associational autonomy. In the same book, he sees all of the anti-democratic arguments as versions of the “idea of guardianship,”  which states that one person or a small group knows better than the rest of the population how to best maximize the interests of the community.

Dahl, in the book On Democracy, introduces five conditions that enhance and keep alive democratic institutions, with three of them essential and two favorable. Essential conditions for democracy are: 1) control of military and police by elected officials; 2) democratic beliefs and political culture; 3) no strong foreign control hostile to democracy. Favorable conditions for democracy are: 1) modern market economy and society; 2) weak subcultural pluralism. In the same book he lists ten reasons for the support for democracy: 1) avoiding tyranny; 2) essential rights; 3) general freedom; 4) self-determination; 5) moral autonomy 6) human development; 7) protecting essential personal interests; 8) political equality; 9) peace-seeking; 10) prosperity. In the book How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2003), Dahl sees campaign contributions, equal state representation in the Senate, and insufficient independence of the Supreme Court as major problems of the US Constitution and democracy.

Main works

Congress and Foreign Policy (1950); 

A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956);

Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (1961); 

Modern Political Analysis (1963);   

Political Oppositions in Western Democracies (1966);   

Pluralist democracy in the United States: conflict and consent (1968);   

After the Revolution?: Authority in a good society (1970);   

Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971);

Size and Democracy (1973);   

Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (1982);

A Preface to Economic Democracy (1985);   

Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship (1985);   

Democracy and Its Critics (1989);   

Toward Democracy - a Journey: Reflections, 1940–1997 (1997);   

On Democracy (1998);

How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001); 

The Democracy Sourcebook (2003);   

After The Gold Rush (2005);   

On Political Equality (2006).

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