Robert Dahl – Polyarchy

The United States faces a crisis of political identity. Many have found purpose in a redefinition of the American political constitution as a democracy. Indeed, the United States has gone beyond its borders to promote democracy around the world. But there is an internal tension among its citizens as to whether the United States embodies the principles it purports to advocate. Is the American constitution democratic? Robert Dahl recognized many complain that the problem with democracy is it is not democratic enough. But there are others who are reluctant to embrace the mantel of democracy. Some continue to repeat the line, “America is a republic, not a democracy.” But this myopic understanding of democracy confuses its meaning with raw majoritarianism. They have never meditated on what it means to be democratic.

Of course, there is some truth to those who proclaim the United States is not a democracy. The United States has a long history of repression beginning with its acceptance of slavery. Even after slavery was abolished, Jim Crowe laws brought about an apartheid system where substantial minorities were denied their constitutional rights. Larry Diamond believes it was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when the United States was democratized. So, conservatives are right to assert the Founding Fathers had no intention to create a democracy. But I doubt these critics intend to advocate a return to slavery or even the hostile racism of the Jim Crowe era. Nonetheless, it was the eradication of these institutions which was central to the construction of American democracy. And it is the legacy of racism that undermines the realization of true political equality.

Nonetheless, Diamond’s inflexibility makes it difficult to define the American political order before these historic events. The early Republic was not a dictatorship, but was it authoritarian? Was Jefferson the champion of liberalism or an authoritarian slaveholder? Diamond draws a line to define democratic governance. This is a democracy. That is not a democracy. But Robert Dahl was more flexible in his interpretation. He saw democracy as an ideal rather than a political system or a regime. Instead, he referred to polyarchy as the political regime others continue to describe as liberal democracy, because he believed there was room for the current political order to become even more democratic.

It is impossible to study democratic theory and ignore Dahl’s Polyarchy. It is the masterpiece from the great theorist of democratic theory. It has influenced generations of scholars who use it as the textbook for their conceptions of democracy. Every theory of democracy must choose to embrace Dahl or answer him before it can move forward. This is the mark of a true classic. It is not necessary to accept its ideas as gospel. Rather its importance is found in the intellectual necessity to offer a response to offer an alternative.

Democratization, for Dahl, was an ongoing process. The different measurements of democracy like Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy find their foundation in Dahl’s conception of democracy. Varieties of Democracy explicitly references the influence of Dahl in its various approaches to measure democracy around the world. Dahl believed it was possible for some states to be more democratic than others. But he also recognized how some states were more democratic in some respects but less democratic in others. Indeed, he saw elements of democracy in the Soviet Union’s commitment to economic equality, even though he recognized it offered no source of political equality for its citizens.

Samuel Huntington popularized the concept of democratic waves. His work on the third wave of democratization interpreted it as the spread of democratic regimes to new parts of the world. But Dahl also wrote about waves of democratization. The third wave of democratization, for Dahl, was not the proliferation of liberal democracy or polyarchy. A wave of democratization represented an intensification of democratic governance that brought about a redefinition in the expectations for democracy. A third wave would represent the natural evolution of polyarchy into something that would become even more democratic. Dahl saw the past waves of democratization as the gradual evolution of political systems into democracies. But the process was not complete nor was it possible to ever become fully realizable. Huntington’s description of the third wave relied upon the Schumpeterian definition of democracy. This definition simplifies regimes into democracies and nondemocracies. It makes it possible to celebrate the proliferation of democratic governance, but it denies the idealism of Dahl’s conception of democracy. It simplifies democracy into an easily recognizable regime rather than the complex subtleties of Dahl’s understanding.

Nobody has ever thought more about democracy than Robert Dahl. His work explores the inconsistencies and challenges the theorist faces in a true description of democracy. And he struggles to comprehend the ways the current political order to evolve to become more democratic. His work implies an expectation that some element of economic democracy is necessary to unify the political equality of the West with the economic equality of the Soviet Union, but he never fully makes this commitment. In fact, it is puzzling how Dahl offers no simple principle to define democracy. His description of polyarchy is based on a series of features rather than a single defining concept. He continues to break down polyarchy from three main ideas into twenty different elements.

Biologists used to define species through their external traits. They were ignorant of how those traits were based on a genetic code. The discovery of genetics has led to a reclassification of some species based on a closer examination of their genome. Dahl’s description of polyarchy relies on a series of external traits rather than internal principles. Indeed, Dahl appears to recognize his own limitations. He refers to polyarchy because he is unable to offer a satisfactory definition of democracy. Instead he offers descriptions. But there are hints where he recognizes the presence of some underlying principles.

Political equality is fundamental to democratic governance for Dahl. In his earlier work, his faith in majoritarianism is based on the principle of political equality. This principle allows him to escape Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” because his majoritarianism depends on its presence. The moment the majority undermines political equality, it undermines democracy. But this description is unsatisfying. It relies on the tautology that “it is not a democracy when it becomes undemocratic.” But it tells us nothing about why a democracy can lead to outcomes that are undemocratic.

Participation becomes another central component to Dahl’s notion of democracy. The expansion of the franchise is an undeniable element of democratization. China describes itself as a “socialist democracy” because it acts in the interests of its people, but it lacks any means for participation for the general population. It is not enough for a government to embody “the will of the people.” A democracy requires an inclusive form of political participation. Dahl takes this principle beyond the right to vote. Liberal rights such as freedom of speech and assembly become important aspects of a democratic participation. A close examination of Dahl’s characteristics of polyarchy makes it obvious how important liberalism is for democratic governance to exist. A liberal democracy does not distinguish a type of democracy. It denotes an intensification of its subject. It represents a deeper form of democracy. Illiberal democracy is consequently less democratic than liberal democracy.

Takis Pappas, however, offers an important critique of liberal democracy. He recognizes “for all its emphasis on liberty, postwar liberalism has by and large been an elitist project.” The alienation of the public in liberal democracy allows for the possibility of populism to emerge. It is important to recognize Pappas does not reject Dahl, but rather this critique is based on Dahl’s own thoughts about polyarchy. Because polyarchy depends heavily on political elites, it fails to completely reflect the purest ideals of democracy. Populism straddles the line between democracy and authoritarianism because it represents the inclusion of many who feel unrepresented, but this inclusion depends on the exclusion of others. Nonetheless, this analysis draws us closer to a clearer understanding of democracy because it makes it obvious that democracy is a political method of inclusion while authoritarianism relies on political exclusion.

The recognition of democratic principles could help theorists understand how a nonwestern form of democracy might emerge. Unfortunately, cultural differences are too often used as a justification for authoritarian rule. But it is important to recognize democracy is not simply a collection of institutions. Recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of democratic norms for democracy to thrive. It is not enough to have elections. Elections must remain free and fair. It is not enough to have legislative assemblies. The assemblies must remain representative and free. In the final analysis, democracy may not rely on any of the political institutions the West has described as democratic. New institutions may develop which incorporate the fundamental principle of political inclusion in both participation and actual governance.

Catherine Herrold describes how a Bedouin leader in Egypt transformed her sense of democracy when he said he did not “need money to build democracy.” He went on to explain how “discussion, debate, agenda setting, and problem solving was… the real stuff of democracy.” To bring about democracy, all he needed was tea. Local Bedouin communities worked out these problems over tea through collaboration and compromise. David Stasavage has recounted how democracy emerged naturally in ancient communities. Over time, centralization brought about the exclusion and alienation of the community from the decision-making process. The challenge has been to rediscover democracy in modern society. Democracy is not a modern invention. It was the natural condition of the earliest communities.

Robert Dahl wrote his masterpiece, Polyarchy, almost fifty years ago. So much has changed in world events since then. Nonetheless, his thoughts on democracy continue to shape how democratic theory continues to evolve. Nobody has spent as much time as Dahl to work through the ideals, contradictions, and aspirations of democracy. He devoted his career to discover the theoretical framework of democracy. So, it can come across as ungrateful to desire a revision of the conceptual framework scholars have inherited. Yet it is also a part of his legacy to strive for more. After fifty years it is time to begin the process of a reimagination of democratic theory.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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