Robert Dahl (1915-2014)

Robert Dahl has passed away, aged 98.

Dahl

Here are five things that stand out for me in Dahl’s work.

  1. We don’t have democracy, we have polyarchy (see Polyarchy, 1971).
  2. The parts of the US constitution which are the least democratic are the parts which are the hardest to change (see How Democratic is the American Constitution?, 2002 pp. 154-5).
  3. ‘In a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians’ (A Preface to Democratic Theory, 1956 p. 68).
  4. ‘My commitment has been to democracy, to liberty, and to a kind of equality …. [E]conomic institutions for me … are seen as quite instrumental; it’s like choosing a Ford or a Toyota, where I have about that much emotional investment in one or the other, whereas I have a deep emotional investment in the nature of the political system and the sort of freedoms that exist in it’ (in Ian Shapiro and Grant Reeher, eds., Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics, 1988 pp. 158-9).
  5. Dahl’s definition of power was more or less right. Steven Lukes’s vastly overrated critique confuses Dahl’s concept of power and how Dahl studied power. There’s no reason to reject the former just because of the significant problems with the latter.

And here are four points about how Dahl studied democracy:

  1. ‘I have always tried to formulate what I’m doing … in the form of a question. Most of my books open with a question in the first paragraph. … This technique so focuses the mind on what’s to follow that I’m astounded when other people don’t use it’ (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 p. 136).
  2. It helps to combine ‘the normative and empirical aspects of democracy … in a single theoretical perspective’ (Democracy and its Critics p. 6).
  3. Dahl’s case for democracy, in Democracy and its Critics, is both negative and positive – negative, because despite democracy’s flaws the alternatives are worse, and positive, because it involves a commitment to moral equality. This is better than the Churchill defence, which is too negative.
  4. Revealingly, Dahl called the book Democracy and its Critics, and tries to make his critics’ case as strong as he can, rather than attacking caricatures or weak versions. Compare Benjamin Barber, who prefers to go for the straw jugular.

In an interview published in 2007, Dahl said:

the writers who had the most impact on my thinking were people with whom I disagreed, but who were more than worthy political opponents. They were giants, and because they were giants they set down a challenge I could struggle with my entire life [e.g. Plato, Marx, Schumpeter]. … I think of it as an imaginary dialogue. The most productive dialogues are not adversarial in the sense of trying to win points, like in a tennis game. I think of it as dialectical in the Platonic and Hegelian sense. I start here, my adversary is over there. I move over a little bit, then they move to a new position, and so forth. Conversations like that are rare. When you have one, you come out of it feeling great (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 pp. 116-9).

I believe that most of the key developments in democratic theory in the last 30 years have come from philosophers, not political theorists. But political theorists like Robert Dahl, Jane Mansbridge and David Beetham are exceptions.

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