Dahl’s legacy: Democracy as a work in progress

On February 5, Robert A. Dahl, Sterling Professor emeritus of Political Science at Yale University, passed away. Born in 1915, Dahl has influenced the study of politics and democracy since its influential earliest contributions to the literature on government, pluralism and power—A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who governs?: Democracy and power in an American city (1961) and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967). The Italian Association of Political Science and Italian Political Science remember his professional legacy with a contribution by Prof. Sergio Fabbrini.

Liberal political science

Dahl was a colossus of modern political science. His theoretical and empirical contributions on democracy represent an essential reference point for all those wishing to understand the subject. The list of his scholarly works is practically endless. Almost all of his scientific books have been translated into Italian. His articles for a broader public were collected in two volumes edited by one of his closest students, Nelson W. Polsby (Toward Democracy: A Journey, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997). I then introduced a selection of these articles to the Italian public, published as Politica e virtù. La teoria democratica nel nuovo secolo, Rome, Laterza, 2001. Here, I don’t want to discuss his scientific trajectory, started with a book that I personally consider still the most challenging contribution to democracy ever written, A Preface to Democratic Theory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1956 (thus critically re-edited in 2006 and published in Italian by Edizioni Comunità in 1994, with an introduction by Alberto Martinelli). On the contrary, I wish to remember him for his fundamental role in contributing to the birth of empirical political science, based on analysis of reality and at the same time aiming to provide indications on how to improve the latter. If there were a Nobel Prize for political science, Dahl would certainly have deserved it. But I also want to remember him as a person who was open to others and never full of himself.

Robert A. Dahl was the most important exponent of liberal political science, which with a critical eye accompanied the development and transformation of American democracy in the post-Second World War period. It is political science which is anti-dogmatic because it is strongly anchored to facts, bereft of ideology since it is realistic in its analyses, and yet idealistic in its projection since it is aware of the in progress nature of the democratic experiment. For Dahl our political regimes are polyarchic, approximations to the ideal democratic model, but certainly not the historic realisation of the same. It is the very tension between democracy as it is (polyarchy) and democracy as it could be which spurs action to improve those political regimes, through constant work to readjust their rules and institutions. Scientific research must shed light on how empirical democracies work, so that citizens and elites can equip themselves with the necessary know-how to promote that robust civilisation which is a facet of good democracy. A robust civilisation which can be built on strong institutions and made to work by a sufficient number of willing citizens and an elite.

Looking for the third way

If democracy is the only political regime whose legitimacy resides in individuals and in their fundamental rights, what conditions enable a society which protects individual rights to produce a collective good such as good democracy? Two opposing approaches (theoretical and political) have traditionally sought to provide an answer to the question. The first approach was that which interprets politics as a mere reflection of the market. It is the traditionally realist approach which takes the individual to be an actor seeking to pursue their own direct material interests. Dahl defines this as the hyper-ego approach. Individuals pursue their interests, maximise their preferences, and are only worried about realising their personal agendas. However, for this approach, the outcome of such egotistical interactions is not necessarily negative. Indeed the struggle between individuals generates a continuous dynamism in the system in both economic and political terms. As a number of right-wing advocates maintain, egoism is the driver of private wealth and dynamism in public realm. The second approach, however, is that which interprets politics as the opposite of the market. Good democracy can be achieved only if societies are made up of virtuous citizens, men and women who share the idea of what should be considered just or unjust, individuals with a conscience who can understand what distinguishes a public from a private good. It is the approach of the heroic citizen connected to the republican and communitarian tradition which has had a major influence on the way of thinking of left-wing politics in the West.


Dahl criticises both approaches. He criticises the approach which many on the left like, since it entrusts good democracy to a citizen who cannot exist in empirical terms, since it assumes the pre-existence of a public good which, instead, is necessarily and constantly discussed and redefined. It is this vision which, moreover, has led part of the left towards authoritarian outcomes, motivated by the need to create, finally, the virtuous and heroic citizen in its archetype. However, he also criticises the approach favoured by many on the right, because it does not acknowledge that the reasons for individual conduct are not only egoistical, because it fails to realise that the strength of the market is due to it being civilised by values which are removed from economic logic, such as solidarity and cooperation. Dahl’s is therefore a third way, an approach which instead of choosing between realism and idealism profitably combines them, it is a way of seeing democracy as a constant process of improvement of individuals through the improvement of institutions. An improvement which requires an adequate political culture of reform. For him, if the conservative sees only restrictions and the revolutionary sees only opportunities, the reformer must know how to use the latter within the former. A political culture which is unknown to Italian elites which so easily fall prey one day to the cynicism of the realist and the next to the ideologies of the idealist.

The tough nut of relations between democracy and the market

Dahl was in that small group of academics who have combined theory with social sensitivity. His intellect was shaped in the dramatic years of the Great Crash of the 1930s and Dahl dedicated a good part of his enormous work to studying the relations between democracy and the market. With Robert Dahl and his colleague Charles Lindblom, we can say that contemporary political economy came into being in the 1950s and 1960s (with their book, Politics, Economics and Welfare, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1953). It was not an easy birth if we think of the context of that period. On the one hand, post-war economic science (which had started to be defined simply as economics) had developed a growing analytical allergy to politics and its institutions (an allergy which would lead it to a scientism completely bereft of any ability to explain). On the other hand, the political theory which came out of the Great Crash had developed a radical distrust of capitalistic economy (distrust which would lead it to pointless normativism). Given two such extreme positions, Dahl instead chose to investigate the contradictory connections between economy and politics, market and democracy. Showing how democracy has civilised the market and how the market has consolidated democracy. Along this line, Dahl showed (in Who Governs: Democracy and Power in an American City, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1961) how governing is a political endeavour that cannot be reduced to a reflex of the market, nor to the exclusive role of elites.

Certainly the reciprocal influence between the institutions of democracy and those of the market produced, and still produce, sub-optimal outcomes. The very concept of ‘polyarchy’ was elaborated exactly for distinguishing empirical democracy from its ideal paradigm. Nonetheless, polyarchic regimes, albeit imperfect, are open to different solutions, on the basis of the differing combination of forces produced by the political and economic dynamism which characterises them. For Dahl, without pluralism there cannot be either democracy or the market (as he argued in Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1968). It is pluralism which the extremists on both sides fail (even today) to understand. For the Jacobeans of democracy, there is only the general ‘interest’ of the people or of the universal class, interpreted of course by an enlightened political elite. For market fundamentalists, there is only no-holds barred supply and demand. For Dahl, however, pluralism manages to generate its positive outcomes only if it is regulated by political mechanisms which can keep a check on the unequal distribution of resources between groups and on that even greater inequality between those who can get organised and those who can’t (as he discussed in Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982).

The Socratic tradition

Dahl was fundamental for academics of my generation. He created anti-dogmatic political science, rooted in facts but still idealistic because it is aware of the in-progress nature of the democratic experiment. For Dahl, political science cannot be reconciled with ideology. It is a social science which is open to new definitions, to new concepts, to new paradigms. In itself it is pluralist. Political science does not coincide with a specific research method. Its goal is to explain political phenomena, not to us ad hoc or pre-selected political phenomena for demonstrating the internal coherence of the research method. For Dahl, the political scientist must know how to use different methods in relation to the diversity of subjects that they study. Just as democracy is in constant tension between how it is and how it could be, political science is an incomplete scientific project.

We could add that, for Dahl, the very life of an academic should be a project which is open to new experiences and new interests. He used to say that just as land needs alternating crops to remain fertile, so academics must inquire into different things to avoid becoming sterile. He did not like excessive specialisation, even less so those who remained closeted away in a single scientific issue for their whole professional life. As only the truly great can, Dahl had a disorienting intellectual humility. Whether at a seminar or at dinner, Dahl would ask questions before he got round to giving answers. He had that natural curiosity of the person who knows that they don’t know (enough). He did not have that ego which accompanies many academics. I remember a dinner with my children when they were still at high school. He spent the whole evening asking what they were studying and discussing Greek and Roman history with them. ‘There’s no better professor than someone who feels like they are a student’. For this reason many of us have reason to be grateful to him.

Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome, where he holds a Jean Monnet Chair.

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