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Robert A. Dahl
Robert A. Dahl
Dahl teaching a political science class at Yale University
Robert Alan Dahl (; December 17, 1915 - February 5, 2014) was a political theorist and Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He established the pluralist theory of democracy--in which political outcomes are enacted through competitive, if unequal, interest groups--and introduced "polyarchy" as a descriptor of actual democratic governance. An originator of "empirical theory" and known for advancing behavioralist characterizations of political power, Dahl's research focused on the nature of decision making in actual institutions, such as American cities. He is the most important scholar associated with the pluralist approach to describing and understanding both city and national power structures.
Dahl received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1936. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. at Yale in 1940 and served on its political science faculty from 1946 to 1986. His influential early books include A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who Governs? (1961), and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967), which presented pluralistic explanations for political rule in the United States. He was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1966.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. Mills held that America's governments are in the grasp of a unitary and demographically narrow power elite. Dahl responded that there are many different elites involved, who have to work both in contention and in compromise with one another. If this is not democracy in a populist sense, Dahl contended, it is at least polyarchy (or pluralism). In perhaps his best known work, Who Governs? (1961), he examines the power structures (both formal and informal) in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.
In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) Dahl argued that the US Constitution is much less democratic than it ought to be, given that its authors were operating from a position of "profound ignorance" about the future. However, he adds that there is little or nothing that can be done about this "short of some constitutional breakdown, which I neither foresee nor, certainly, wish for."
One of his many contributions is his explication of the varieties of power, which he defines as A getting B to do what A wants. Dahl prefers the more neutral "influence terms" (Michael G. Roskin), which he arrayed on a scale from best to worst:
Rational Persuasion, the nicest form of influence, means telling the truth and explaining why someone should do something, like a doctor convincing a patient to stop smoking.
Manipulative persuasion, a notch lower, means lying or misleading to get someone to do something.
Inducement, still lower, means offering rewards or punishments to get someone to do something, like bribery.
Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of a job.
Coercion is power with no way out.
Physical force is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.
Thus, the governments that use influence at the higher end of the scale are best. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.
Democracy and polyarchies
In his book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl clarifies his view about democracy. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia. To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria:
Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.
Voting equality at the decisive stage
Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.
Control of the agenda
Demos or people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation.
Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process.
Instead, he calls politically advanced countries "polyarchies". Polyarchies have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy. Those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power.
Shapiro, Ian, and Grant Reeher, eds Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics: Essays in Honor of Robert A. Dahl (Westview Press, 1988)
Interview by Richard Snyder: "Robert A. Dahl: Normative Theory, Empirical Research and Democracy," pp. 113-149, in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).