On Democracy


In this accessible & authoritative book, an eminent political theorist provides a primer on democracy that clarifies what it is, why it is valuable, how it works, & what challenges it confronts in the future. Since its original publication in 1999, the book has been translated or is being translated in more than a dozen foreign languages. In this accessible work, the political theorist Robert A. Dahl provides a primer on democracy that clarifies what it is, why it is of value, how it works, and what ...

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In this accessible & authoritative book, an eminent political theorist provides a primer on democracy that clarifies what it is, why it is valuable, how it works, & what challenges it confronts in the future. Since its original publication in 1999, the book has been translated or is being translated in more than a dozen foreign languages. In this accessible work, the political theorist Robert A. Dahl provides a primer on democracy that clarifies what it is, why it is of value, how it works, and what challenges it will confront in the future.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The last half of the 20th century was an era of democratic triumph. The main antidemocratic regimes -- communist, fascist, Nazi -- disappeared, and new democracies emerged vigorously or tentatively throughout the world. In On Democracy, one of the most prominent political theorists of our time provides a primer on democracy that clarifies what it is, why it is valuable, how it works, and what challenges it confronts in the future.
Publishers Weekly
[A] thorough but concise handbook by one of America's foremost political scientists. . . . Dahl nimbly sketches the various issues and neatly frames controversies for the reader. His accessible style makes this an excellent introduction for novices, as well as a trusty handbook for experts and political science mavens.
Virginia Quarterly Review
As one of the most impressive scholars of our time, and as the authority in the discipline, it is of great importance that Dahl offers this tract on democracy. In a style many will find accessible, Dahl focuses on the questions he has considered over his long and distinguished career. . . . Any one who is a Democrat must read this book. Not only does it provide the analytical leverage for understanding the process of democratization ongoing in numerous countries, but it also turns and introspective and critical eye on the old democracies of Europe and North America.
Alan Wolfe
On Democracy is a work which ought to be read, especially by those interested in a clear, concise, and always insightful introduction to what we all too often take for granted. Democracy, as Dahl, one of the great democratic theorists of our time, often reminds us, is hard work and one of the most important aspects of that work is bringing the kind of commitments to its understanding that Dahl achieves here.
—( Commonwealth)
Marc F. Plattner
[Dahl]...offers a "guide" to those "searching for answers to some of the most basic questions about democracy"....on the whole Dahl does a commendable job of presenting a complex topic in a clear, concise and common-sensical manner...accessible to the general reader. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An edifying if uninspiring primer on the theory and practice of democracy. During the last half of the 20th century, democracy has emerged triumphant as a political system, its rivals having disappeared or been relegated to a few dark corners of the globe. Yet what is democracy? Yale political scientist Dahl (A Preface to Economic Democracy) addresses this question in a slim volume written not for experts but for the general reader. After a brief history of the development of democracy, the author offers a theoretical analysis and defense of democracy and then a study of the actual institutions, social conditions, and political attitudes that seem necessary for democracy to thrive. In theory, democracy necessitates participation, equality in voting, citizen understanding of issues and control over the political agenda. In practice, those systems based on elected representation, fair and frequent elections, freedom of expression, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship offer the best hope of realizing the democratic ideal. Dahl moves from the ideal to the real in incremental steps, carefully defining each of his terms and linking them to previous terms. His discussion of the positive and negative roles the free market plays in sustaining democracy is particularly cogent. What emerges is a clear, understandable overview of democracy. It's all very dry, however. Dahl's focus on logic and clarity of terms captures the form of democracy but not the content of it as a dramatic and exciting ongoing struggle. Democracy here is more a set of definitions than a process. Also, Dahl's focus on the Western experience, from ancient Greece and Rome to today, excludes much. Missing, forinstance, is any historical account of the democratic practices of some native peoples of North America. He strongly implies British rule in India set the stage for democracy there but doesn't search for any indigenous roots. A more inclusive approach might have served the author's purposes better.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300084559
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 521,633
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Table of Contents

1 Do We Really Need a Guide? 1
2 Where and How Did Democracy Develop? A Brief History 7
3 What Lies Ahead? 26
4 What Is Democracy? 35
5 Why Democracy? 44
6 Why Political Equality I? Intrinsic Equality 62
7 Why Political Equality II? Civic Competence 69
8 What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require? 83
9 Varieties I: Democracy on Different Scales 100
10 Varieties II: Constitutions 119
11 Varieties III: Parties and Electoral Systems 130
12 What Underlying Conditions Favor Democracy? 145
13 Why Market-Capitalism Favors Democracy 166
14 Why Market-Capitalism Harms Democracy 173
15 The Unfinished Journey 180
App. A On Electoral Systems 189
App. B Political Accommodation in Culturally or Ethnically Divided Countries 192
App. C On Counting Democratic Countries 196
Notes 201
Further Reading 209
Acknowledgments 213
Index 215
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First Chapter

Chapter One

    Do We Really Need a Guide?

    During the last half of the twentieth century the world witnessed an extraordinary and unprecedented political change. All of the main alternatives to democracy either disappeared, turned into eccentric survivals, or retreated from the field to hunker down in their last strongholds. Earlier in the century the premodern enemies of democracy--centralized monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, oligarchy based on narrow and exclusive suffrage--had lost their legitimacy in the eyes of much of humankind. The main antidemocratic regimes of the twentieth century--communist, fascist, Nazi--disappeared in the ruins of calamitous war or as in the Soviet Union collapsed from within. Military dictatorships had been pretty thoroughly discredited by their failures, particularly in Latin America; where they managed to survive they often adopted a pseudo-democratic facade.

    So had democracy at last won the contest for the support of people throughout the world? Hardly. Antidemocratic beliefs and movements continued, frequently associated with fanatical nationalism or religious fundamentalism. Democratic governments (with varying degrees of "democracy") existed in fewer than half the countries of the world, which contained less than half the world's population. One-fifth of the world's people lived in China, which in its illustrious four thousand years of history had never experienced democratic government. In Russia, which had made the transition to democratic rule only in the last decade of the century, democracy was fragile and weakly supported. Even in countries where democracy had long been established and seemed secure, some observers held that democracy was in crisis, or at least severely strained by a decline in the confidence of citizens that their elected leaders, the political parties, and government officials could or would cope fairly or successfully with issues like persistent unemployment, poverty, crime, welfare programs, immigration, taxation, and corruption.

    Suppose we divide the nearly two hundred countries of the world into those with nondemocratic governments, those with new democratic governments, and those with long and relatively well established democratic governments. Admittedly, each group contains an enormously diverse set of countries. Yet our threefold simplification helps us to see that viewed from a democratic perspective each group faces a different challenge. For the nondemocratic countries, the challenge is whether and how they can make the transition to democracy. For the newly democratized countries, the challenge is whether and how the new democratic practices and institutions can be strengthened or, as some political scientists would say, consolidated, so that they will withstand the tests of time, political conflict, and crisis. For the older democracies, the challenge is to perfect and deepen their democracy.

    At this point, however, you might well ask: Just what do we mean by democracy? What distinguishes a democratic government from a nondemocratic government? If a nondemocratic country makes the transition to democracy, what is the transition to? When can we tell whether it has made the transition? As to consolidating democracy, what, exactly, is consolidated? And what can it mean to speak of deepening democracy in a democratic country? If a country is already a democracy, how can it become more democratic? And so on.

    Democracy has been discussed off and on for about twenty-five hundred years, enough time to provide a tidy set of ideas about democracy on which everyone, or nearly everyone, could agree. For better or worse, that is not the case.

    The twenty-five centuries during which democracy has been discussed, debated, supported, attacked, ignored, established, practiced, destroyed, and then sometimes reestablished have not, it seems, produced agreement on some of the most fundamental questions about democracy.

    Ironically, the very fact that democracy has such a lengthy history has actually contributed to confusion and disagreement, for "democracy" has meant different things to different people at different times and places. Indeed, during long periods in human history democracy disappeared in practice, remaining barely alive as an idea or a memory among a precious few. Until only two centuries ago--let's say ten generations--history was very short on actual examples of democracies. Democracy was more a subject for philosophers to theorize about than an actual political system for people to adopt and practice. And even in the rare cases where a "democracy" or a "republic" actually existed, most adults were not entitled to participate in political life.

    Although in its most general sense democracy is ancient, the form of democracy I shall be mainly discussing in this book is a product of the twentieth century. Today we have come to assume that democracy must guarantee virtually every adult citizen the fight to vote. Yet until about four generations ago--around 1918, or the end of the First World War--in every independent democracy or republic that had ever existed up to then, a good half of all adults had always been excluded from the full rights of citizenship. These were, of course, women.

    Here, then, is an arresting thought: if we accept universal adult suffrage as a requirement of democracy, there would be some persons in practically every democratic country who would be older than their democratic system of government. Democracy in our modern sense may not be exactly youthful, but it is hardly ancient.

    You might object at once: Wasn't the United States a democracy from the American Revolution onward--a "democracy in a republic" as Abraham Lincoln called it? Didn't the illustrious French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830s, call his famous work Democracy in America? And didn't the Athenians call their system a democracy in the fifth century B.C.E.? What was the Roman republic, if not some kind of democracy? If "democracy" has meant different things at different times, how can we possibly agree on what it means today?

    Once started, you might persist: Why is democracy desirable anyway? And just how democratic is "democracy" in countries that we call democracies today: the United States, Britain, France, Norway, Australia, and many others? Further, is it possible to explain why these countries are "democratic" and many others are not? The questions could go on and on.

    The answer to the question in the title of this chapter, then, is pretty dear. If you are interested in searching for answers to some of the most basic questions about democracy, a guide can help.

    Of course, during this short tour you won't find answers to all the questions you might like to ask. To keep our journey relatively brief and manageable, we shall have to bypass innumerable paths that you might feel should be explored. They probably should be, and I hope that by the end of our tour you will undertake to explore them on your own. To help you do so, at the end of the book I'll provide a brief list of relevant works for further reading on your part.

    Our journey begins at the beginning: the origins of democracy.

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