Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A polyarchy is a modern representative democracy with universal suffrage

Robert Dahl's On Democracy Aaron Miller PSC 129 January 31, 2001
In the opening pages it is fairly apparent that the author, Robert Dahl, is going to take on a large subject matter in this book. His opening chapter, "Do We Need a Guide," he starts off by talking about twentieth century democracies and concludes with the line, "Our journey begins at the beginning: the origins of democracy." This is a clear indication that Dahl is attempting to give an overview of the entire democratic history. Fitting such a topic in a mere two hundred pages seems like a difficult task and doing it well seesm the intention of this section is to clarify exactly the message being convey when some political science jargon like a difficult task and doing it well seems like an insurmountable one.
Dahl takes on this task by working very methodically through this large topic and not straying to tangents of ideas even when they might be beneficial to the reader. Instead, he alludes to other texts throughout the book, so the reader can get a better sense of an idea if Dahl knows he will not fully cover it. Also, he includes a further reading section at the end of the book, broken down into the categories that On Democracy covers.
Using lists in almost every chapter, Dahl breaks down each topic covered in a logical fashion that allows the reader to clearly understand him in fewer words. While discussing what an ideal democracy is, Dahl makes a bold statement of describing "What is Democracy" in five attributes that people must have: effective participation, equality in voting, gaining enlightened understanding, exercising final control over the agenda, and inclusion of adults. Dahl goes on to explain each one of these more completely, but these lists help the reader understand the main points that Dahl is trying to make. In addition to the lists Dahl usually sums up each chapter in one page at the end of the chapter allowing the reader to comprehend the main ideas that Dahl is trying to get across. In the chapter "Why Democracy," Dahl summarizes the undeniable advantageous qualities of an ideal democracy. These qualities being that:
  • Democracy helps prevent government by cruel and vicious autocrats.
  • Democracy guarantees its citizens a number of fundamental rights that nondemocratic systems do not, and cannot, grant.
  • Democracy insures citizens a broader range of personal freedom than any feasible alternative to it.
  • Democracy helps people to protect their own fundamental interests.
  • Only a democratic government can provide a maximum opportunity for persons to exercise the freedom of self determination- that is, to live under laws of their own choosing.
  • Only a democratic government can provide a maximum opportunity for exercising moral responsibility.
  • Democracy fosters human development more fully than feasidble alternative.
  • Only a democratic government can foster a relatively high degree of political equality.
  • Modern representative democracies do not fight wars with one another.
  • Countries with democratic governments tend to be more prosperous than countries with nondemocratic governments.

Throughout On Democracy, Dahl emphasizes the importance of words and their definitions. To illustrate their importance Dahl looks to Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass where he says 'When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean-- neither more, nor less. According to this everyone is free to call any government a democracy, even a despotic one. Just as Alice finds Humpty Dumpty's logic to be irrational so does Dahl of leaders like Lenin who pronounced themselves more democratic than western countries like the U.S. In almost every chapter Dahl includes a sections called, "Words about Words," the intention of this section is to clarify exactly the message being convey when some political science jargon like "popular government" is used. Often people argue solely because they have a different idea about what a word actually means or how it is being used. At the opening of one of Dahl's chapter, he is referring to actual governments, not ideal ones. In the same section Dahl identifies that when he uses the term "popular government" he is referring to a government that is democratic aside for its exclusion of some adult population from suffrage or some other political participation.
Dahl has also coined words to express ideas or physical entities that he feels are not express well. One of these words that Dahl uses is which Dahl feels is necessary in a modern democracy. Coined in 1953 a polyarchy is a modern representative democracy with universal suffrage. It calls for the creation of political institutions that can compensate for the fact that contemporary states are too big, and the lives of the people living within them too complex, for everyone to get together with any frequency to decide things in common. Elections, a free press, autonomous associations, and inclusive citizenship are among the institutions required to make polyarchy work.
In Dahl's section on actual democracy he points out that the sheer number of people that exist in America or most other places for that matter make the direct democracy the Greeks envisioned impossible. The amount of time necessary for so many people to have a say in any matter would take so long that progress would be non-existant, if not backwards. Even in a small Vermont town assembly that still operates in the Greek fashion, direct democracy instead of representative democracy, a meeting takes four despite only seven percent of eligible voters choose to speak at all. Common sense therefore dictates the Law of Time and Numbers: The more citizens a democratic unit contains, the less that citizens can participate directly in government decisions and the more that they must delegate authority to others. This conflicting emotion between wanting to include all members of society directly in the decision making process and the need to solve problems in a timely fashion is one of the areas that Dahl leaves to the reader to investigate further if they wish.
In the acknowledgments, Dahl asserts that his intention was to write a book on democratic theory and practice that was accessible to a general audience. On Democracy is an example of Dahl's desire to make equality a rule rather than a goal. In the readings it is apparent that Dahl is a proponent of democracy though he does not entangle the reader much with his thoughts on solutions to problems or how governments should be run. Dahl seems to bring a message throughout the book that his reasons for supporting democracy is not that it is flawless, instead alternative governments eliminate the best parts of democracy. His clear and thoughtful writing brings the knowledge of democracy to people, like democracy brings power to people.


  1. Could you tell us the original source for this review?

  2. [hakon: The form of Democracy Dahl defines is essentially a representative constitutional liberal democracy. This he refers to as a “polyarchy”. This is a definition of what Dahl means by polyarchy that I copied of the net (]

  3. Very intelligent and helpful post!