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Otto Polyakov
Otto Polyakov

Robert Dahl's Polyarchy: How It Works and Why It Matters


- How polyarchy differs from other forms of democracy and non-democracy H2: The Origins and Development of Polyarchy - Dahl's intellectual background and influences - Dahl's empirical research on democracy in the US and abroad - Dahl's normative arguments for polyarchy as a desirable and feasible political system H2: The Critiques and Challenges of Polyarchy - Internal critiques: how polyarchy can be improved or deepened - External critiques: how polyarchy can be challenged or replaced by alternative models - Empirical challenges: how polyarchy can cope with changing social and political realities H2: The Legacy and Relevance of Polyarchy - How polyarchy has influenced democratic theory and practice - How polyarchy can help us understand and evaluate contemporary democracies - How polyarchy can inspire us to pursue democratic ideals and values Article with HTML formatting: What is Polyarchy? An Introduction to Robert Dahl's Democratic Theory




Democracy is one of the most cherished and contested concepts in political science. Different scholars, thinkers, and activists have defined, defended, and criticized democracy in various ways throughout history. One of the most influential and original contributions to democratic theory in the 20th century was made by Robert A. Dahl (1915-2014), an American political scientist who coined the term "polyarchy" to describe a specific form of democracy that he observed and advocated.




Robert Dahl Polyarchy Pdf



In this article, we will explore what polyarchy means, how it emerged and evolved as a concept and a reality, what are its main strengths and weaknesses, and why it still matters for understanding and improving democracy today. We will follow the structure of the outline above, starting with the concept of polyarchy, then tracing its origins and development, then examining its critiques and challenges, and finally assessing its legacy and relevance.


The Concept of Polyarchy




Polyarchy is a term that Dahl derived from the Greek words "poly" (many) and "arche" (rule), meaning "rule by many". He defined it as "a political order in which citizenship is extended to a relatively high proportion of adults, and the rights of citizenship include the opportunity to oppose and vote out the highest officials in the government" (Dahl 1971, p. 3). In other words, polyarchy is a system where most adults have the right to participate in politics, especially by electing and removing their leaders.


Dahl identified eight characteristics or institutional guarantees that are essential for polyarchy to exist and function. These are:



  • Freedom to form and join organizations



  • Freedom of expression



  • Right to vote



  • Eligibility for public office



  • Right of political leaders to compete for support and votes



  • Alternative sources of information



  • Free and fair elections



  • Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference



Dahl argued that these characteristics are necessary but not sufficient for democracy, which he defined as "a system that responds equally well to each citizen regardless of how much power he or she has" (Dahl 1989, p. 108). He recognized that polyarchy falls short of this ideal because it does not ensure equal representation, participation, or influence for all citizens. However, he also claimed that polyarchy is the best approximation of democracy that is possible and desirable in large and complex societies.


Dahl distinguished polyarchy from other forms of democracy and non-democracy based on two dimensions: participation and contestation. Participation refers to the extent to which citizens have access to political rights and opportunities. Contestation refers to the extent to which citizens have alternative choices among political leaders and policies. Based on these dimensions, Dahl classified political systems into four types:


Participation Low High --- --- --- Low Contestation Closed hegemony (e.g. dictatorship, monarchy) Inclusive hegemony (e.g. one-party state, military regime) High Contestation Competitive oligarchy (e.g. elite democracy, pluralism) Polyarchy (e.g. liberal democracy, representative democracy) As the table shows, polyarchy is the only type of political system that combines high levels of participation and contestation, which Dahl considered as the minimum conditions for democracy.


The Origins and Development of Polyarchy




Dahl's concept of polyarchy was shaped by his intellectual background and influences, his empirical research on democracy in the US and abroad, and his normative arguments for polyarchy as a desirable and feasible political system.


Dahl's intellectual background and influences


Dahl was born in 1915 in Iowa, the son of Norwegian immigrants. He studied political science at the University of Washington and Yale University, where he was influenced by the behavioralist movement that emphasized empirical observation, measurement, and testing of political phenomena. He also encountered the works of classical and modern political theorists, such as Plato, Machiavelli, Mill, Marx, Tocqueville, Weber, Schumpeter, and Lasswell, who inspired him to ask fundamental questions about the nature and value of democracy.


Dahl's empirical research on democracy in the US and abroad


Dahl's first major work was A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), where he criticized the traditional view of democracy as majority rule and proposed a more realistic and pluralistic model based on the idea of "polyarchy". He applied this model to analyze the politics of New Haven, Connecticut, in his seminal book Who Governs? (1961), where he challenged the elitist theory that a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals dominated the city. He showed that different groups had different degrees of influence on different issues, and that no group had a permanent or exclusive control over the political agenda. He concluded that New Haven was a "polyarchy" rather than an "oligarchy".


Dahl later expanded his scope to compare the politics of different countries and regions in the world. He conducted fieldwork in India, Ghana, Nigeria, Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and other places, where he observed how different forms of democracy emerged and functioned in different contexts. He synthesized his findings in several books, such as Polyarchy (1971), Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (1982), Democracy and Its Critics (1989), On Democracy (1998), and How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001). In these works, he refined his concept of polyarchy and addressed various issues and challenges related to democratic theory and practice.


Dahl's normative arguments for polyarchy as a desirable and feasible political system


Dahl's concept of polyarchy was not only descriptive but also prescriptive. He argued that polyarchy was not only the most common form of democracy in the modern world but also the most desirable and feasible one. He defended polyarchy on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. Ethically, he argued that polyarchy was compatible with the values of human dignity, autonomy, equality, justice, and diversity. Pragmatically, he argued that polyarchy was adaptable to changing social and political conditions, responsive to diverse interests and preferences, conducive to peaceful conflict resolution, and supportive of economic development and social welfare.


Dahl did not claim that polyarchy was perfect or final. He acknowledged that polyarchy had many problems and limitations, such as inequality, corruption, polarization, apathy, alienation, instability, inefficiency, and violence. He also recognized that polyarchy was not inevitable or irreversible. He warned that polyarchy could be threatened or undermined by various factors, such as authoritarianism, populism 71b2f0854b


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