Robert Dahl – On Political Equality

Dahl’s majoritarianism has never made sense to me. I get the feeling Dahl has different ideas he believes relate to democracy. But he never completely ties them together. There are so many loose ends which he dances around. It’s a beautiful chaos because he is a genius who is completely honest with his intellectual curiosity but there is an elegance which is missing from his work. Even his conditions for polyarchy ramble into a list of seven different characteristics. He struggles to find a single principle which can tie it all together. Still, there is an intellectual integrity within his approach where he seems to recognize he is not the final voice on these ideas. There is an expectation that more remains to be said.

His work On Political Equality helps clarify his ideas about majority rule. Dahl says, “Majority rule is justified only as a means of achieving political equality.” About seventeen years earlier in his late masterpiece Democracy and its Critics he failed to tie majority rule back to equality. There was a challenge where he failed to explain how a commitment to majority rule could not undermine democracy. Yet this work clarifies it is not majority rule which is central to democracy but its ability to establish political equality through the principle of one person one vote.

About fifty years earlier in his Preface to Democratic Theory he critiqued Madisonian democracy for its lack of commitment to majority rule. In hindsight, his critique is interesting because it tackles many of the ideas Lijphart later championed as consensual democracy. Yet Dahl believes they interfere with majority rule, so they are not quite democratic enough. But underlying his critique of Madisonian democracy is the influence of Madison’s Federalist 10 where Madison himself argued large republics would limit faction through their sheer size. Dahl believes America’s problems with race arose from its acquiescence to a southern exceptionalism that led to racial segregation. The era known as reconstruction demonstrated there was a governing majority of Northern Radical Republicans and African Americans at the federal level. Their majority collapsed in the election of 1876 due to the combination of racial intimidation at the polls and a Republican candidate who lacked any commitment to racial equality.

Dahl saw the American tradition of federalism as an obstacle to democracy. The fifteenth amendment was supposed to offer political equality in terms of race but was ignored in the southern states. A political system based on political equality would have given rise to a coalition capable of defending the rights of African Americans. Ron Chernow has detailed the challenges for the Grant Administration to make this ideal a reality within the context of the American political tradition. Its important to recognize Dahl came of age in the aftermath of this political failure. The American political system for him resembled a democracy but simply fell short.

Nonetheless, political equality for Dahl is an equality of political participation. There is not an equality in governance. It is surprising that he does not fully recognize this distinction. One person may have one vote initially, but electoral coalitions establish public policies. Political governance is largely a process of political exclusion. Even within multi-party parliamentary governments, coalitions are formed with the intention to exclude groups from governance. Dahl never squares his commitment to political equality with the realities of political exclusion in actual governance.

Inequalities bother Dahl because his expectation of democracy is grounded in a sense of fairness. So economic inequality is problematic because it gives unfair political advantages through its distribution of resources. Much has been written about the political consequences of economic inequalities. Yet he fails to recognize it is simply one form of institutional inequality. A person from a well-connected family finds it easier to rise to the top even when they lack economic resources. Yet it is not inequality which becomes a problem prima facie. Rather democracy’s problems arise from political exclusion. People are alienated through political marginalization. They want a seat at the table commensurate with their political clout. They do not just want a seat in a representative assembly. But they want their concerns taken into account within actual public policy. The challenge for democracy is how to balance these demands. And sometimes a natural imbalance between different interests necessary for social harmony. Dahl is right to demand an equality in political participation but the real challenge is to balance different demands within political governance.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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