Robert A. Dahl – On Democracy

Democracy is not a new invention. During 600 C.E. to 1000 C.E. the Vikings hold meetings called Ting. There they settled disputes, discussed, accepted or rejected laws and even decided to change their religion (from the old Norse religion to Christianity). Later, they created a kind of supra-Ting, a National Assembly called Althing. Other historic examples of democratically ruled societies are the city-states of ancient Greece, ancient Rome (before the reign of Julius Caesar) and some Italian cities during the Middle Ages. But in which aspects do they differ from today’s democracy? What are the key elements of democracy and what challenges do they have to face?

Robert Dahl was interested in answering these questions. He is one of the most influential political scientists of modern times. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 at the age of 98. During his lifetime, he was concerned with aspects of democracy like separation of powers or parliamentary representation. His book On Democracy can be seen as a handbook of democratic systems in the contemporary world.

There are two different perceptions of democracy, an ideal and an actual one. In an ideal democracy, all members of an entity are considered politically equal. Five standards must apply to enable democratic processes: effective participation, equality in voting, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda and inclusion of adults. While effective participation refers to the fact that all members should have the same chance to state their opinion, equality in voting means that all votes should count equally. Only with enough access to information and knowledge about outcomes of alternative policies (enlightened understanding), citizens are able to have the chance to decide what topics should be placed on the agenda (control of the agenda). The last criterion, inclusion of adults, is what distinguishes older from modern democracies the most. While in older democracies the right to participate and vote was only given to wealthy male people, today there exist comprehensive suffrage.

If you take a closer look at the state of actual democracy in the world, not every state can be considered an established (or polyarchal) democracy. Dahl identifies six necessary requirements for a large-state to be considered a polyarchal democracy, but even with those requirements a state might never reach the aim of an ideal democracy (but can move closer to this point). Those necessities include elected officials, especially in larger states in which direct democracy becomes impracticable. Elections should be free, fair and frequent so citizens are able to have control over the agenda. They should have access to sources of information that are not under the control of the government and be able to express themselves without the fear of getting punished for their opinion. This freedom of expression includes criticism of officials, the government, the socioeconomic order and the dominant ideology. People should be able to form and participate in organizations like political parties or interest groups. The rules, laws and obligations should apply to every adult permanently residing in the country.

Today, democracy is far from being self-evident. With the current events happening in the world, we might see a comeback of authoritarian regimes. The author recognizes four main challenges for democratic systems in the 21st century: the economic order, internationalization, cultural diversity and civic education.

While Robert Dahl acknowledges the role of Market-Capitalism in creating a democratic state through the distribution of wealth in the hands of the many, he was also concerned with growing inequality in every modern democracy. After a certain threshold, the positive effects of Market-Capitalism turn negative, limiting the democratic potential of polyarchal democracies. A growing inequality in economic resources leads to an inequality in the distribution of political resources, undermining the core identity of a democracy, political equality. Internationalization likely expands the power of political and bureaucratic elites at the expense of democratic controls. As an illustration, Dahl mentions the European Union, where crucial decisions are made through bargaining among elites and are less likely influenced by democratic processes (“democratic deficit”). An important factor of the creation and the stability of a democratic state is also whether there are weak or absent cultural conflicts. In the 21st century, there might be a growing number of cultural conflicts. Because of war, terror, starvation and poverty, people seek to escape to rich democratic countries where they hope to find better opportunities. Lastly, a criterion for a functioning democracy is an enlightened understanding of its citizens. In a world where the complexity of problems and the wealth of information increases, this topic becomes even more important. If democracies fail to find solutions regarding those four problems, the gap between ideal and actual democracy will grow even greater and might lead to an era of democratic decline.

On Democracy reads like a handbook for democracy. While at a few places it sadly doesn’t go much into detail, Robert Dahl wrote a number of other more extensive books, in which he went more into detail. While the reader emphasizes with the authors’ concerns about the future of democratic states, there are no suggestions how to deal with the mentioned problems. Overall, this book is a easy to understand, but superficial overview of dahl’s thoughts.

Dahl, Robert A. (2015): On Democracy, 2nd Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven.

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