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The last half of the twentieth century has been an era of democratic triumph. The main antidemocratic regimescommunist, fascist, Nazihave disappeared, and new democracies are emerging vigorously or tentatively throughout the world. In this accessible and authoritative book, 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.
Robert Dahl begins with an overview of the early history of democracy. He goes on to discuss differences among democracies, criteria for a democratic process, basic institutions necessary for advancing the goals of democracy, and the social and economic conditions that favor the development and maintenance of these institutions. Along the way, he illustrates his points by describing different democratic countries, explaining, for example, why India, which seems to lack most of the conditions for a stable democracy, is nevertheless able to sustain one. Dahl answers such puzzling questions as why market- capitalism can both favor and harm democracy. And he concludes by examining the major problems that democratic countries will face in the twenty-first century, problems that will arise from complexities in the economic order, from internationalization, from cultural diversity, and from the difficulty of achieving an adequate level of citizen competence.
About the Author:
Robert A. Dahl, Sterling Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Yale University, is also author of Who Governs? After the Revolution, Polyarchy, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy, and Democracy and Its Critics, all available from Yale University Press.
Read an Excerpt
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.
Table of Contents
|PART I. THE BEGINNING|
|PART II: IDEAL DEMOCRACY|
|PART III. ACTUAL DEMOCRACY|
|PART IV. Conditions Favorable and Unfavorable|
|Appendix A. On Electroal Systems||189||(3)|
|Appendix B. Political Accommodation in Culturally or Ethnically Divided Countries||192||(4)|
|Appendix C. On Counting Democratic Countries||196||(5)|
What People are Saying About This
This elegantly written handbook on democracy will be widely read. It is vintage Dahl.
Dahl presents a powerful overview of democracy in an astonishingly compact discussion.
Completely accessible, admirably succinct, intelligent, and even wise, On Democracy offers the ideal overview of the worst form of government except all others. Robert Dahl masterfully guides the general reader through a tour of the origins, ideals, actualities, and potentialities of democratic government. Even sophisticated students of democracy can learn a lot on this tour.
:(Amy Gutman, author of Democracy and Disagreement (with Dennis Thompson)).