Robert A. Dahl – A Preface to Democratic Theory

Anyone who studies democracy seriously must eventually find their way to Robert A. Dahl. Nobody has written more about democratic theory than Dahl. Yet there is a struggle within his writing to resolve the multiple values of democratic society. Giovanni Sartori accepted a natural conflict between equality and liberty. But Dahl was not prepared to accept the tradeoff.

He changed the perspective of all future theorists of democracy through his vision of democracy as a continuum. This remarkable insight has led to different attempts to operationalize democracy from organizations like Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy or the Polity Project. Even the Economist has its own measure of democracy. Moreover, this insight was necessary to resolve the tension between the reality and the idealism of the American political system and its history.

The United States has been a model for nations who have aspired toward democratic governance. Yet its own journey towards democratic governance has been a process. The twentieth century brought about significant progress with the expansion of suffrage for women and civil rights legislation for minorities with emphasis on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about Democracy in America during the Age of Jackson, yet the historical United States fails the standards and expectations of democracies in the modern era. The prevalence of slavery and its successor, Jim Crowe, made the actualization of democracy an impossibility in the American South despite so many icons of American democracy such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Because Dahl saw democracy as a continuum it allowed theorists to accept the progress many leaders brought about while identifying areas where democracy was not fully realized.

In this short work, Dahl grapples with the inconsistencies between the Madisonian tradition of democracy and his vision of Polyarchal Democracy. Throughout Dahl’s work there is a challenge to resolve the problem of governance with the promise of democracy. He is resigned to the possibility that democratic governance may not always be effective governance. Compromises are brokered to balance democratic ideals with the realities of governance. He is sympathetic to Madison whose theories of governance were largely limited by his role as a legislator. Even within the Federalist, Madison acts less like a philosopher than a lawyer who defends a client he has accepted.

For Dahl the American system of checks and balances grades on his faith in majoritarianism. He rightly notes how many of the checks on governance did not protect civil liberties or defend democracy but undermined it. As evidence, he notes how judicial review up to his time was a tool of the powerful. He shows how most Civil Rights cases had reduced civil liberties rather than expanded them. Dredd Scott is of course the most famous.

Dahl sees the principle of majority rule as an inclusive doctrine. Because every person has an equal vote, everyone’s ideas are considered. The tyranny of minorities is more likely to emerge than the tyranny of the majority because this form of tyranny is by nature exclusive. The minority protected is rarely the powerless. Too often the minorities the political system protects are simply the rich and powerful.

There is a challenge within Dahl’s commitment to majority rule. Why cannot the majority change the rules of political participation to strengthen or entrench their influence? Dahl answers this objection in a later work called Democracy and its Critics. His answer is unsatisfying. He says these reforms are simply undemocratic. So, embedded within his belief in majority rule is a greater principle of democracy. Something beyond the rule of the majority. Dahl touches on this in different ways. He continues to come back to ideas about equality and participation. But his concept of polyarchy always lacked an elegant answer. He continued to require multiple conditions rather than the discovery of a single principle to define the nature underlying the notion of democracy.

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