Democracy Man

The Life and Work of Robert A. Dahl
FEBRUARY 12, 2014


Robert Dahl died on February 5 at the age of 98. He might well have been the most important political scientist of the last century, and he was certainly one of its preeminent social scientists. He received strings of awards and honorary degrees, including the first Johan Skytte Prize, created in 1995 to remedy the lack of a Nobel Prize for Political Science. Citations to Dahl’s work run to the tens of thousands, dwarfing those of his contemporaries. Many leaders of the profession today were his students. 

Born in 1915 in Inwood, Iowa, Dahl grew up in Alaska, graduated from the University of Washington in 1936, finished his PhD at Yale in 1940, and then joined the war effort. He served on the War Production Board and as a first lieutenant in the army, winning a Bronze Star with oak cluster for distinguished service. Following a brief stint in the Roosevelt administration he returned to Yale, this time as faculty, in 1946. He taught for 40 years, retiring as Sterling Professor Emeritus in 1986. He remained an active scholar for another two decades.

In many ways, Dahl created the field of modern political science. To be sure, the scholarly study of politics goes back to at least the ancient Greeks. Dahl was no Plato, Aristotle, or Thomas Hobbes, but he added something new to the armchair reflection leavened by illuminating anecdote that had characterized the enterprise for millennia: the systematic use of evidence to evaluate rigorously stated theoretical claims. Generations of Dahl’s successors have developed both theories and empirical methods in multiple directions since he produced his innovative works in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes in ways that he found less than congenial. Few would deny that they stood on Dahl’s shoulders.

Dahl is often considered the founder of the behavioral school of political science. That is because he emphasized observable conduct in his early theoretical work on power and the behavior of urban elites in Who Governs, his study of decision-making in New Haven. But it misconstrues Dahl to identify him with that or any methodological school.  Some of his work was conceptual, aimed at understanding such things as the nature of power and democracy. Some of it was institutional; he studied the feasibility and effectiveness of the separation of powers, whether democracy could survive without a market economy, and whether democratic firms could be efficient. Still other questions were normative, geared to determining which system of political representation is best, whether delegating political power to experts is a good idea, and how much inequality is desirable. He was a problem-driven scholar who addressed the major questions of his time and selected the methods appropriate to the task.

One illuminating window onto Dahl’s scholarship is to view him as having been engaged in a lifelong dialogue with James Madison. Dahl had great respect for the founding generation. Madison’s contention in Federalist Number 10 that multiple factions could make democracy viable on a large scale might be the earliest statement of the logic of crosscutting cleavages on which Dahl would build his pluralist theory of democracy. Contrary to the rationalist followers of the American economist Kenneth Arrow, for whom the instability of majority rule was a problem, Dahl’s Madisonian insight was that instability is actually an advantage. It keeps majorities fluid in ways that stop politics from becoming winner-take-all contests in which losers might as well reach for their guns.

But the founders’ institutional theories were another matter. Dahl’s most analytically acute book, A Preface to Democratic Theory published in 1956, is a trenchant critique of the separation of powers in general, of judicial review in particular, and of the system of representation that the founders devised as part of what turned out to be a vain attempt to head off civil war over slavery.

Noting that Madison’s oft-repeated slogan from Federalist Number 51 that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” was long on rhetoric and short on an account of how this might actually work, Dahl maintained that the founders and legions of their followers were mistaken to think that the American constitutional order was responsible for the survival of American democracy. Rather, it was the pluralistic character of the society that permitted the constitutional order to survive.

In a seminal article in 1957, Dahl zeroed in on judicial review, arguing that the available data failed to support the conventional wisdom that the Supreme Court protects minority rights. Subsequent empirical scholarship has borne out Dahl’s contention. Whether one looks at the United States over its own history, at comparisons among many countries, or at democracies that have gone from not having judicial review to having it, Dahl turns out to have been right that the heavy lifting is done by democracy, not constitutional courts. Authoritarian leaders ignore judges and courts with impunity, and adding courts to democracies has no appreciable effect on their protection of civic freedoms or minority rights. Yet curiously, we continue pressing for the creation of independent judiciaries to enforce bills of rights in new democracies.

Other important literatures have grown out of Dahl’s critique of republican institutions in A Preface to Democratic Theory and elsewhere. One stream of scholarship focuses on the consequences of multiplying veto players through the structures of government. Scholars following Dahl have shown that doing so not only biases things toward the status quo, but also biases things in favor of the well resourced. You need a lot of heft to move a recalcitrant elephant. 

Dahl spawned another huge literature on representation. His skepticism of catering to intense minorities has stood up well. Critics of consociational democracy and other schemes designed to do this have shown that it tends to entrench them, producing the divisions and antipathies such schemes are intended to ameliorate. Dahl himself was especially troubled by the over-representation of small states in the U.S. Senate, the one feature of the United States constitution that is impossible to amend.

Dahl studied democracies all over the world, but usually with the United States in mind as a comparative benchmark. Although he disagreed strongly with Madison on many points, he thought that the bulk of the founders’ mistakes derived from the challenge of creating a large-scale democracy for the first time — without our advantages of accumulated evidence and hindsight. Dahl was gratified to discover that Madison’s post­–Federalist Papers political experience led him to abandon his antipathy for political parties and, eventually, his hostility to majority rule as well. In Dahl’s afterword to the 50th anniversary edition of A Preface to Democratic Theory,he noted with appreciation that in 1833, three years before Madison’s death, Madison had declared that critics of majority rule “must either join the avowed disciples of aristocracy, oligarchy or monarchy, or look for a Utopia exhibiting a perfect homogeneousness of interests, opinions and feelings nowhere yet found in civilized communities.”

Dahl was also decidedly Madisonian in his worries about the effects of inequality on democracy. Just as Madison came to fear that the monied interests championed by Alexander Hamilton in the early 1790s would destroy America’s nascent democratic order, by the time Dahl published On Political Equality in 2006, he wondered whether the growing political inequalities he saw around him might not “push some countries — including the United States — below the threshold at which we regard them as ‘democratic’.” His active research ended with that book’s publication, but in this area, like so many others, subsequent developments have revealed Dahl’s concerns to be well founded.


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