Polyarchy is meant to represent an elevated form of democracy. Unfortunately, it is not clear what Robert Dahl intends to imply is a barebones democracy. It seems he has accepted a Schumpterian form of democracy, but this does not sit well with me. I can imagine he would accept the common precept that democracy is more than elections. Instead, polyarchy acts as a threshold. A democracy may come close to this standard but still fall short. Dahl is careful not to declare these close calls nondemocracies. But this leaves an inadequate description for democracy in a book Dahl entitled On Democracy.

Dahl distinguishes between large and small democracies. He reflects on Federalist 10 in this description where Madison explains how a large nation must rely on representation to integrate the principles of democracy. A reading of the Federalist allows a reader to believe democracy was somehow looked down upon during the formation of the constitution. I have heard people say, “It is a Republic, Not a Democracy.” But a reading of the principle Antifederalist papers provides a clearer light. The Federal Farmer argued the constitution was not democratic enough. It is unlikely he would have called upon the principle of democracy had this had negative connotations. Dahl understands this debate well. He believes Madison distinguishes between democracies and republics to change the dimension of the debate. A common argument of the Antifederalists was the districts were too large so the representatives would not reflect their constituents.

Boy did I just digress. My point was Dahl is focused on large-scale democracies rather than city-states or organizations. He is not establishing the fundamental principles of democracy. Instead, he is providing characteristics where we can identify committed, established democracies. This is what he means by polyarchy. Here are what he calls the six necessary political institutions:

  1. Elected officials
  2. Free, fair, and frequent elections
  3. Freedom of expression
  4. Alternative sources of information
  5. Associational autonomy
  6. Inclusive citizenship

I have a problem when he calls these political institutions. An institution provides a context to establish relationships with understood rules and traditions. Elections are an institution because they provide a context for a relationship between candidates and voters. There are accepted behaviors within elections that contrast with normal behavior. For instance, people set up signs in their yard, candidates and volunteers knock on doors of strangers and people go to a specific place to vote. Elected officials are not an institution. They belong to an institution like Congress or Parliament.

The six political institutions of Dahl are better described as elements of polyarchy. It is possible for him to describe these elements as institutions. Elected officials could be replaced by elected legislative bodies. But this loses some of its meaning because elected executives are left out of its definition. Alternative sources of information could become redefined as a free press. Yet again, this misses his point. His standard is not limited to the institution of the press. Today’s age of social media represents what Dahl envisioned. The ability of people to provide contrasting opinions on different subjects relevant to governance.

Polyarchy suffers from the same problems as Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy or Polity IV. It is a collection of characteristics about democracy. There is no clear principle that establishes the idea of democracy. Political science has allowed us to look at ideas from different perspectives through statistics. I read quantitative academic studies and they can provide insights that are not obvious without a clear analysis of the data. The different measurements of democracy are essential to providing these quantitative insights. But democracy does not have a long history. The old democracies date back to the second world war. Even the democratization of the United States was unfulfilled until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A philosophical description of democracy is necessary. We lack elegance in our notion of democracy. Our descriptions that categorize and list off parts of democracy must become weaved into a single explanation. We must move beyond the theory of polyarchy.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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