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A Preface to Democratic Theory / Edition 1

A Preface to Democratic Theory / Edition 1

by Robert A. Dahl


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A Preface to Democratic Theory / Edition 1

Explores some problems left unsolved by traditional democratic theory, and examines two influential 'model' theories- the madisonian and the populistic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226134345
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2006
Edition description: Expanded
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 905,635
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert A. Dahl is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University. His numerous books include, most recently, How Democratic is the American Constitution? and On Democracy.

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A Preface to Democratic Theory


Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-13433-8

Chapter One

Madisonian Democracy


Democracy, it is frequently said, rests upon compromise. But democratic theory itself is full of compromises-compromises of clashing and antagonistic principles. What is a virtue in social life, however, is not necessarily a virtue in social theory.

What I am going to call the "Madisonian" theory of democracy is an effort to bring off a compromise between the power of majorities and the power of minorities, between the political equality of all adult citizens on the one side, and the desire to limit their sovereignty on the other. As a political system the compromise, except for one important interlude, has proved to be durable. What is more, Americans seem to like it. As a political theory, however, the compromise delicately papers over a number of cracks without quite concealing them. It is no accident that preoccupation with the rights and wrongs of majority rule has run like a red thread through American political thought since 1789. For if most Americans seem to have accepted the legitimacy of the Madisonian political system, criticism of itsrather shaky rationale never quite dies down; and as a consequence, no doubt, the Madisonian theses must themselves be constantly reiterated or even, as with Calhoun, enlarged upon.

It would be misleading to ascribe all the propositions that follow directly to James Madison himself. For though Madison articulated most of the basic elements of the theory, before and at the Constitutional Convention and later in certain of the "Federalist Papers," his relation to the propositions that follow must be qualified in three ways.

First, despite dissents of varying sorts, much of what he set forth or implied was widely shared by other political leaders of his time. Madison, however, had the rare gift-doubly rare among political leaders-of lucid, logical, and orderly exposition of his theoretical argument; perhaps in no other political writing by an American is there a more compactly logical, almost mathematical, piece of theory than in Madison's The Federalist, No. 10. Hence it is both convenient and intellectually rewarding to turn to Madison to discover a basic rationale for the American political system.

Second, even Madison did not always articulate his assumptions as to fact, definition, or value. I have therefore found it necessary from time to time to supply what seem to me these implied assumptions. This is a risky business, and in defense I can only say that in every instance I have sought to make his position as orderly and coherent as possible and not to weaken it. In brief, I rely on Madison where he seems to make his own case most logical, consistent, and explicit, but in all other cases I try to formulate a proposition that seems to me more logical, consistent, and explicit. It is a style of argument I am concerned with, not a perfect reproduction of Madison's words.

Third, it is a little unfair to treat Madison as a political theorist. He was writing and speaking for his time, not for the ages. He was up to his ears in politics, advising, persuading, softening the harsh word, playing down this difficulty and exaggerating that, engaging in debate, harsh controversy, polemics, and sly maneuver. He was a great man, intelligent, principled, successful; and he built well. To take his ideas apart and examine them piece by piece is, undoubtedly, a little unfair. As an admirer of Madison the man and statesman, I would be content to let Madison the theorist lie in peace-if it were not for the fact that he so profoundly shaped and shapes American thinking about democracy.

The central proposition of the Madisonian theory is partly implicit and partly explicit, namely:

Hypothesis 1: If unrestrained by external checks, any given individual or group of individuals will tyrannize over others.

This proposition in turn presupposes at least two implied definitions:

Definition 1: An "external check" for an individual consists of the application of rewards and penalties, or the expectation that they will be applied, by some source other than the given individual himself.

Definition 2: "Tyranny" is every severe deprivation of a natural right.

Three comments need to be made about the definition of tyranny supplied here. First, it is not the same as Madison's explicit definition of tyranny in The Federalist, No. 47, where he states that "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." It seems to me that Madison's explicit definition has been derived from Definition 2 by the insertion of an empirical premise, i.e., the accumulation of all powers in the same hands would lead to severe deprivations of natural rights and hence to tyranny. It seems reasonable, therefore, to reconstruct Madison's explicit argument into the following Madisonian reasoning:

Hypothesis 2: The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary in the same hands implies the elimination of external checks (empirical generalization).

The elimination of external checks produces tyranny (from Hypothesis 1).

Therefore the accumulation of all powers in the same hands implies tyranny.

As it stands Madison's explicit definition is unnecessarily arbitrary and argumentative, and since it can be derived from a definition that is not only highly congenial to the whole cast of Madison's thought but, as will be shown in a moment, helpful to the logic of his argument, I propose to adhere to Definition 2.

Second, the natural rights are not clearly specified. Among Madison's contemporaries as among his predecessors there was by no means a perfect agreement as to what "rights" are "natural rights." Such agreement as existed was on a high level of abstraction and left wide opportunities for disagreement in specific cases. As will be seen, the absence of an agreed definition of natural rights is one of the central difficulties of the Madisonian theory.

Third, I have used the expression "severe deprivation" to cover an ambiguity in the thought of Madison and his contemporaries. How far could governments go in limiting natural rights without becoming tyrannical? Here again, neither Madison nor any other Madisonian, so far as I am aware, has provided wholly satisfactory criteria. However, Madison no doubt agreed with his contemporaries that, at a minimum, any curtailment of natural rights without one's "consent" was a sufficiently severe deprivation to constitute tyranny.' The ambiguity is so deep-seated, however, that I doubt whether any phrasing can patch it up.

As corollaries of Hypothesis 1 two additional hypotheses need to be distinguished:

Hypothesis 3: If unrestrained by external checks, a minority of individuals will tyrannize over a majority of individuals.

Hypothesis 4: If unrestrained by external checks, a majority of individuals will tyrannize over a minority of individuals.

Or as Hamilton put it more succinctly, "Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many."

Let us now turn to the proof of Hypothesis 1, and hence also of Hypotheses 3 and 4.


Clearly Hypothesis 1 is an empirical proposition. Its validity can therefore be tested only by experience. Madison's own methods of validating the hypothesis seem to be representative of the widespread American style of thought that in this book is called "Madisonian." Madison's first method of proof is to enumerate historical examples drawn, for example, from the history of Greece and Rome. His second method of proof is to derive the hypothesis from certain psychological axioms that were widely accepted in his day-and perhaps are now. These axioms are Hobbesian in character and run something like this: Men are instruments of their desires. They pursue their desires to satiation if given the opportunity. One such desire is the desire for power over other individuals, for not only is power directly satisfying but it also has great instrumental value because a wide variety of satisfactions depend upon it. The flavor of these axioms is conveyed in remarks at the state and federal conventions from both supporters and opponents of the Constitution:

Lenoir, in the North Carolina debates: "We ought to consider the depravity of human nature, the predominant thirst of power which is in the breast of everyone, the temptations rulers may have, and the unlimited confidence placed in them by this system."

Franklin, at the Federal Convention: "There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money."

Hamilton, at the Federal Convention: "Men love power."

Mason, at the Federal Convention: "From the nature of man, we may be sure that those who have power in their hands ... will always, when they can, ... increase it."


If Hypothesis 1 is accepted as validated by these two methods (or others), then Hypotheses 3 and 4, which are merely derived from Hypothesis 1, are also valid. Nevertheless, Hypothesis 4 seems to play a special role in Madisonian thought.

Neither at the Constitutional Convention nor in the "Federalist Papers" is much anxiety displayed over the dangers arising from minority tyranny; by comparison, the danger of majority tyranny appears to be a source of acute fear. The "Federalist Papers," for example, reveal no deep-seated distrust of the executive branch, which was regarded by the authors (wrongly, as it turned out) as the strong point for the minority of wealth, status, and power. By contrast, a central theme of Madison's is the threat from the legislature, supposedly the stronghold of the majority. Thus: "It is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions."

And it follows from Definition 2, as well as from Madison's own explicit definition of tyranny, that legislative or majority tyranny is not any less tyrannical than executive or minority tyranny. They are equally undesirable. Thus: "The founders of our republics ... seem never to have recollected the danger from legislative usurpations which, by assembling all power in the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as if threatened by executive usurpations." Madison buttressed his position by calling upon Jefferson, who in his Notes on Virginia had said, "One hundred and seventy three despots would surely be as oppressive as one ... an elective despotism was not the government we fought for."

Both majorities and minorities, then, are weighed on the same scales. For the objective test of non-tyranny is not the size of the ruling group; it is whether the ruling group, whatever its size, imposes severe deprivations on the "natural rights" of citizens.


So far, the propositions in the Madisonian system are definitional or empirical. With the admission of one more definition, it now becomes possible to state the goals to be used in guiding the choice among possible political systems.

What is needed at this point is a definition of "democracy." However, in Madison's day the term "democracy" was less common than in ours. To some extent it was associated with radical equalitarianism; it was also ambiguous because many writers had defined it to mean what we today would call "direct" democracy, i.e., non-representative democracy. The term "republic" was frequently used to refer to what we would be more inclined to call "representative" democracy. It will do no harm, therefore, to adhere to Madison's own term "republic," which he defined as follows:

Definition 3: A republic is a government which (a) derivesall of its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people and (b) is administered by persons holding their office during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior.'

It is now possible to state the central ethical goal of the Madisonian system, which can conveniently be called the Madisonian axiom:

The goal that ought to be attained, at least in the United States, is a nontyrannical republic.

This goal was taken as a postulate. Because it was not seriously questioned at the Constitutional Convention or elsewhere and has never been seriously questioned in this country since that time, the goal has pretty much remained an unexamined axiom. Hence one cannot state unequivocally the rationale that may lie behind this postulate. To Madison and many others, however, the axiom was probably deduced implicitly from a more basic ethical postulate with the assistance of an empirical premise, as follows: (1) Natural rights ought to be attained (axiom); (2) attainment of natural rights is non-tyranny (from Definition 2); (3) a republic is a necessary although not a sufficient condition for non-tyranny (empirical generalization). Q.E.D.-the Madisonian axiom.

Although the first two of these propositions were widely accepted, some well-known Federalists like Hamilton denied the validity of the third. Hamilton, who had a frank but by then unrealistic preference for monarchy, said in effect that a republic might be a possible but it was assuredly not a necessary condition for non-tyranny; among the possible conditions for non-tyranny he would have included a constitutional monarchy. Fortunately for the stability of the American political system, but unfortunately for political theory, Hamilton's challenge was treated as a gigantic irrelevancy.


After this short excursion into ethical theory, the remainder of the Madisonian system consists of predictive statements, definitions, and inferences derived from what has been given so far. For, given the Madisonian axiom, the question now becomes: What conditions are necessary for attaining the goal of a non-tyrannical republic?

Hypothesis 5: At least two conditions are necessary for the existence of a non-tyrannical republic:

First Condition: The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, must be avoided.

Second Condition: Factions must be so controlled that they do not succeed in acting adversely to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.


In attempting to prove that the first condition is an essential prerequisite of every non-tyrannical republic, the Madisonian system becomes so deeply ambiguous that it is difficult to know precisely how to do justice to the argument.

We are faced at the outset with two alternative possibilities. The first I rejected a moment ago as essentially trivial. For if we accept Madison's explicit definition of tyranny, and if we postulate that tyranny is to be avoided, then the first condition is necessary merely by definition: (1) Tyranny means the accumulation of all powers, etc. (definition). (2) Tyranny is undesirable (axiom). (3) Therefore the accumulation of all powers, etc., is undesirable. Yet to solve the problem by definition leaves open many major questions. For example, if one asks, "Why is tyranny as you define it undesirable?" the explicit Madisonian system proves no answer. For surely "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands" is not obviously or intuitively undesirable. The undesirability of such a state of affairs must then flow from certain predicted consequences. What are these consequences? To keep the Madisonian system intact, I took the liberty of specifying what these consequences must be, namely, "the severe deprivation of natural rights."

Another possibility, therefore, is to accept Madison's implicit definition that tyranny is every severe deprivation of natural rights and to propose the empirical hypothesis that the accumulation of all powers, etc., will eliminate external checks (Hypothesis 2) and hence produce tyranny (by Hypothesis 1 and Definition 2).


Excerpted from A Preface to Democratic Theory by Robert A. Dahl Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................viii
Author's Note....................ix
Foreword: Reflections on A Preface to Democratic Theory....................xi
1. Madisonian Democracy....................4
2. Populistic Democracy....................34
3. Polyarchal Democracy....................63
4. Equality, Diversity, and Intensity....................90
5. American Hybrid....................124
Afterword: Reevaluating Madisonian Democracy....................152

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