Thoughts on Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy

Polyarchy by Robert Dahl

Robert Dahl developed the concept of polyarchy to describe democracy as a political regime type. But it also implies liberal democracy has room to become even more democratic. This is the ninth part of the Democracy Paradox, a comprehensive theory of democracy.

The Significance of Robert Dahl

Nobody has thought more about democracy than Robert Dahl. His influence shapes discussions on democracy more than any other theorist. Unlike many political philosophers, his writing comes across in clear and simple prose. And yet, it is easy to overlook the complexity of his ideas and their implications. Unlike many political scientists, he did not minimize the elusive nature of democracy. And yet, his research led to the distillation of democracy into numbers and figures so its quantitative analysis became possible. 

Dahl is remarkable, because he did never minimized the complex nature of democracy. He actually took time to think through its meaning. Moreover, he never came across as though he sounded satisfied. His most complete account of democracy was titled Polyarchy, because he believed it still came short of democracy’s aspirations. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he believed modern democracies had room to improve. He expressed these frustrations in Democracy and its Critics where he gives voice to a common criticism of democracy, “It is not democratic enough.” This was his criticism of democracy. 

Most political scientists have adopted Dahl’s view of democracy as a continuum so it’s difficult to recognize how radical this insight once was. Joseph Schumpeter had viewed democracy as a binary classification. Moreover, it was easily recognized through the “competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” In other words, he defined any government with competitive elections as a democracy. Schumpeter’s definition is described as minimalist, because it does not require civil liberties typically associated with liberal democracy like freedom of speech. Surprising to many, Schumpeter did not even demand universal suffrage. Nonetheless, many political scientists have adopted a modified Schumpeterian definition of democracy due to its simplicity.


Dahl departed from Schumpeter, because he believed democracy was more than just elections. He referred to eight institutions necessary for polyarchy. I prefer to describe them as characteristics or conditions, but they are: 

1. Freedom to form and join organizations
2. Freedom of expression
3. Right to vote
4. Eligibility for public office
5. Right of political leaders to compete for support
5a. Right of political leaders to compete for votes
6. Alternative sources of information
7. Free and fair elections
8. Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference 

Any state that met all eight conditions was classified as a polyarchy. It also recognized many states may meet some conditions, but not others. So polyarchy opens the possibility of hybrid regimes or even flawed democracies. Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy, The Economist, and Polity have all developed even more complex indexes of democracy that incorporate even more variables. Most indexes establish a threshold for democracy or even liberal democracy. Dahl, on the other hand, did not like to describe any regime as a democracy. Polyarchy implied the process of democratization remained incomplete. He anticipated the need for polyarchy to develop into something even more democratic. 

Democratic Waves and the End of History

Another well-known theorist, Samuel Huntington, popularized the concept of democratic waves. He drew attention to the third wave of democratization. This phenomenon gave hope for the proliferation of democracy across multiple cultures into unexpected regions of the world. Huntington showed how demands for democracy build momentum across nations so democratization is rarely an isolated event in any one country. But Huntington’s sense of democracy relied more on Schumpeter’s minimalist definition than Dahl’s elusive interpretation. Around the same time, Francis Fukuyama took the idea of democratic waves to its logical conclusion. He saw the triumph of liberal democracy as inevitable. Every democratic wave expanded the footprint of democracy, so eventually it would overtake the entire globe. 

The End of History

Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis is actually incompatible with Dahl’s interpretation of democracy. Dahl saw polyarchy or liberal democracy as the current stage in an ongoing process of democratization. Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as a conclusion to political modernization and development. The cleverness of Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history is difficult to comprehend today, because it relies on the Marxist idea of the inevitability of communism. Fukuyama reclaimed the Hegelian concept of history for liberal democracy. But it largely assumed liberal democracy was fully formed. He believed political scientists understood liberal democracy. 

The original essay “The End of History” is a truly bizarre work of political commentary and analysis. Many have criticized its optimism in the inevitability of liberal democracy’s triumph. But the essay concludes on a pessimistic note.  He writes, “The end of history will be a very sad time…. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” His final words take the entire argument over the top as he portends “centuries of boredom” and describes his own “ambivalent feelings” for it all. 

Can Democracy Become More Democratic?

Dahl had a different interpretation of democratic waves. He viewed democratic waves as periods where people reinterpreted democracy. Indeed, democracy became more democratic during a democratic wave. So, he predicted the third wave of democratization “will take place only in the most ‘advanced’ countries and will help to shape the character of life in the ‘advanced’ countries in the twenty­-first century.” Dahl had a fundamentally different view of democratization than Huntington or Fukuyama. An end of history remained an impossibility, because the process of democratization was incomplete. Moreover, it likely would remain incomplete. For Dahl, democracy was an elusive aspiration. It remained incomplete, because it was never fully understood. 

But Dahl did offer hints for how democracies might become more democratic. Dahl never did develop a single principle to describe democracy, but he often came back to an idea he called political equality. Its most visceral manifestation is found in universal suffrage and the principle of one person, one vote. It is also evident in Dahl’s faith in majority rule. He believed true majorities offered a stronger defense for marginalized groups than traditional institutions designed to protect “minorities.” Indeed, the Supreme Court, the Senate, and federalism have all been tools used to oppress African Americans and other marginalized groups in the United States. They do not offer a defense for minorities so much as powerful minority interests. 

Political Equality

It helps to look back to Dahl’s first book on democracy published in 1956, A Preface to Democratic Theory. It remains required reading for any serious student of democracy. Most of the landmark decisions of the Warren Court had not yet come. Nonetheless, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka offered a glimpse of the paradigm shift the Court had begun in its approach to civil rights. But Dahl saw the Brown decision as a rare reversal for the court. He looked at the far longer history of the court as an adversary of civil rights and civil liberties. Perhaps, the most egregious example is found in the Dred Scott decision where the Taney court revoked citizenship rights from all African Americans based solely on race. 

The legacy of the Warren Court reshaped views of the Supreme Court as a defender of marginalized groups and even democracy. But Dahl came from an older generation with greater reservations towards the role of the courts. He saw how majority opinion in the United States had shifted on civil rights long before the judicial or legislative branches made any important rulings or passed any significant legislation. The Senate was a key impediment to reform. The filibuster, in particular, gave a small, but powerful minority a veto over legislation necessary to recognize the civil rights of African Americans.

Tyranny of the Minority

The current political environment has undergone another paradigm shift in the United States. The “tyranny of the majority” has become less of a concern than a tyranny of a small, but powerful minority. The rights of marginalized groups appear safer in the hands of the majority than the institutions designed to protect “minority rights.” Nonetheless, majorities do pose challenges for minority groups in other political environments. The popularly elected NLD in Burma supported what many have described as the genocide of the Rohingya people. The Hungarian people continue to elect Viktor Orbán and Fidesz despite their autocratic tendencies and hostility towards marginalized groups such as Muslims. 

Dahl understood pure majoritarianism was not the same as democracy. He felt political majorities should determine public policy, but should not manipulate the political process. Joseph Schumpeter’s minimalist form of democracy divided the political process from public policy. Subsequent political scientists and theorists saw democracy as a tool to legitimize policy outcomes. Majorities cannot interfere in the political process and remain democratic. Dahl recognized the important role of majority rule, but saw certain conditions necessary for political equality. Majority rule could not toss aside those conditions in the name of democracy. 

Civil Liberties

Most of Dahl’s conditions for polyarchy involved the political process. But his first two conditions involve important civil liberties: freedom of association and freedom of expression. Most of us cannot imagine free and fair elections in an environment without freedom of speech.  But civil liberties also represent important policy decisions for a democracy. Dahl took an important step to reclassify these civil liberties as procedural. As a part of the democratic process, majorities could not limit them through the decision making process and remain a democracy. But this opens a pandora’s box of possibilities. Anything deemed necessary to preserve political equality could become procedural. 

Economic Democracy

Proponents of economic democracy argue inequalities of wealth undermine political equality. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have shown how the growth in wealth inequality in the United States has increased the political influence of the affluent. Ganesh Sitaraman has taken this a step further to demand specific policy actions in the name of The Great Democracy. Dahl was sympathetic to these arguments. He believed “extreme inequalities in the distribution of such key values as income, wealth, status, knowledge, and military prowess are equivalent to extreme inequalities in political resources.” But he also recognized how efforts to make equality of wealth a condition for democracy could “lead to a regressive narrowing of the opportunities for public contestation now available in polyarchies.”

Economic democracy risks a redefinition of democracy into a political system where every policy becomes predetermined. China calls itself a “people’s democratic dictatorship” under the principle of “democratic centralism,” but nobody honestly believes it is democratic. Nonetheless, it shows the challenge ideas like economic democracy pose. On the one hand, they encourage the environment where influence becomes more egalitarian. And yet, it requires the predetermination of policies beyond the democratic process to bring it about. Of course, Dahl offers a window for the theorist to escape these contradictions. He believed the introduction of greater economic democracy simply belonged to a future democratic wave. 


Dahl never reconciles economic democracy with polyarchy. He believed the two should belong, because they represent different aspects of equality. And yet, economic democracy appears to constrain and limit the possibilities for democratic decisions. Democracy, for Dahl, remains an elusive aspiration. It involves the reconciliation of contradictions that future generations must slowly find ways to resolve. Nonetheless, the problem Dahl faces involves the peculiar challenge of equality. He never considers whether equality is a false representation of democracy. He does not consider whether equality is merely a reflection of democracy rather than its essence. 

My Final Thoughts

My own interpretation of democracy views it as an inclusive political process. The essence of democracy is not equality, but inclusion. This is a subtle, but significant reinterpretation of Dahl’s analysis. The elements of polyarchy involve different ways to include people into the political process. Universal suffrage is another obvious form of inclusion. Freedom of speech offers another channel for inclusion into the political process. But democracy remains elusive, because inclusivity in participation remains easier than inclusivity in governance. The inclusion of some groups may depend upon the exclusion of others. White Supremacy in the South demanded the exclusion of African Americans from the political process for their participation. Today, the inclusion of marginalized groups requires the exclusion of white supremacists from public deliberation. Moreover, polarization makes it difficult to imagine how an inclusive style of governance is even possible. 

Robert Dahl is the most influential theorist on democracy. Nobody spent more time working through the challenges democracy faces. His insights have shaped political thought about democracy since the publication of Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition over fifty years ago. Think about that for a moment. It has been fifty years since political science has undergone a fundamental reexamination into the theory of democracy. A lot of theorists have expounded upon Dahl’s framework, but nobody has reexamined its foundations. Perhaps the time has come. 

A Few Sources

Robert Dahl (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition

Francis Fukuyama (1989), “The End of History?” The National Interest

Samuel Huntington (1991), The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century

Joseph Schumpeter (1942), Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy

Ganesh Sitaraman (2019), The Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the Economy, and Unite America

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Derek W. Black Says Public Education Represents the Idea of America… Not its Reality

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on the Plutocratic Populism of the Republican Party

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