Robert Dahl – Democracy and Its Critics

Democratic theory begins with Robert Dahl. No one theorist has been able to surpass him for his breadth and clarity about democracy. So many expectations are placed on Dahl that it is only natural he disappoints. But this is a testament to his influence rather than a criticism of his work. Enough time has passed in which a new theorist should have emerged to help explain the inconsistencies and gaps within Dahl’s theory. There has been great research about subtopics within the larger field of democracy. Yet there has been no attempt to synthesize and clarify these ideas within a grand theory of democracy. So, the reader must begin with Dahl. There has been nobody better at parsing out the different concepts within democratic theory and reassembling them back in order to explain the liberal democratic theory of today.

His work Democracy and its Critics gives a broad view of his mature thoughts on democracy. It is written on the eve of the fall of communism. The third wave of democracy had begun a decade earlier with the democratic transitions of Spain and Portugal but had not seen its proliferation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, there is a sense that change is near. Central Europe began its process od democratization in the year of this book’s publication. Because so much of the world had begun to change from many of his classic works, this book helps to clarify many of his thoughts in light of these changes. Moreover, the book is long enough to give a complete description of his thoughts. In contrast, his even later work On Democracy offers the reader an abbreviated perspective.

Dahl breaks democracy down into two transformations. There is a first transformation in Greece where people become directly involved in their governance. The second transformation brings about the modern democratic political system based on representation, constitutionalism and liberalism. It is impossible to fully understand Dahl without reflecting on his views of Athenian democracy. Many scholars focus on Athenian Democracy as a model for direct democracy. Dahl reinterprets this era of political development as a focus on political participation. These ideas become central to his notion of polyarchy which is based on principles of political equality.

Central to the work’s title is a response to criticisms of democracy. He breaks down the primary critiques into anarchism and Guardianship which is based on Plato’s theories in The Republic. The concept of guardianship is very far fetched within today’s political environment. It has never been put into place and was partly abandoned in Plato’s later work The Laws who retained the position of the Guardian but transformed the scope of the role it played within the state. Yet Guardianship cannot be ruled out. Technocracy has many similarities. Indeed, the centrally planned economies of Communist countries resembled an attempt toward technocratic governance rather than the traditional ideals of Marxism. Indeed, technocratic central planning is likely to reemerge as an alternative to democracy as technology continues to offer greater confidence in experts.

The theories of Dahl continued to evolve throughout his career. The elements of polyarchy were entirely different in Democracy and its Critics than his early work A Preface to Democratic Theory. This makes it important to revisit Dahl during different stages of his career in order to better understand his theories and ideas. Polyarchy itself was never described as the culmination of political evolution. Dahl did not conceive it could represent The End of History in contrast to Fukuyama. Indeed, Dahl believed there was room for further development even within the most democratic nations.

I cannot express how important literature on democracy has become in the Age of Trump. It is not simply that democracy is under assault. The definitions and expectations of democratic governance have been contested. Deep within the Western tradition of democracy there is a contradiction between partisan competition and inclusive governance. Samuel Huntington wrote that the great paradox of democracy was how the importation of democracy into nonwestern states became an obstacle to westernization. Rather the Democracy Paradox is based in Western Culture itself. Can the West resolve its emphasis on competition with the necessity for cooperation within democratic governance? The answers to these questions begin with Robert A. Dahl.

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