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Dahl: Preface to democratic theory

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Dahl. 1956. Preface to democratic theory.


Dahl attempts to clarify the logic in Madisonian thinking and evaluate whether the major claims make sense. The main focus of the book is Madison's idea that the majority must be restrained through institutional mechanisms that keep it from depriving the rights of minorities. Dahl concludes that institutional restraints don't matter (thus Madison was wrong); social prerequisites do. A democratic society remains democratic--democratic institutions don't enforce themselves.

Key Claims

  1. There is a tension in the basic theorizing about democracy. On the one hand democracy is premised upon political equality, which implies majority rule. On the other hand, democratic thinkers--particularly Madison--were concerned about protecting minorities from being abused by the majority. Madisonian thinking attempts to balance this tension by combining universal voting rights with institutions that check the power of legislative majorities.
  2. Madison was wrong, and antidemocratic. In the first place, the large size of the US does not logically (necessarily) preclude the emergence of a stable majority, and Madison's institutional checks cannot prevent a majority from acting.
  3. After reviewing two theoretical concepts of democracy (Madisonian and Populistic), Dahl looks at the characteristics shared by actually existing democracies, circa 1956. He proposes that we think of democracies as polyarchies, and lays out several criteria that can essentially be summed up into the two dimensions he uses in Polyarchy (contestation and participation).
  4. The heart of this book is an anti-institutional claim. Dahl says that since Madison we have tended to think that the constitution restrains the majority, but we have been looking in the wrong place. We have neglected the social checks and balances, which are ultimately more important than the institutional ones. "In the absence of certain social prerequisites, no constitutional arrangements can produce a non-tyrannical republic" (p. 83).
  5. Some preference distributions are compatible with democracy and others are not. In short, single-peaked preferences are compatible with democratic decision making, because policy decisions are acceptable to a majority of citizens. However, double-peaked preferences, in which two equal groups have strongly held and opposing beliefs, are not compatible with democracy (e.g., the US civil war).
  6. Considerable examination is offered of the case of an apathetic majority and a minority with strongly-held preferences. Although the US constitution is often said to be designed to accommodate this type of preference distribution by guaranteeing that the minority will prevail, neither judicial review nor equal representation of the states in the senate provides a solution. "No solution to the intensity problem is possible through constitutional or procedural rules" (p. 119).
  7. So, why does democracy last in the US? According to Dahl, most citizens share a consensus on important values. Representatives also hold these values, so policy decisions rarely deviate from the majority's core preferences. "With such a consensus [on basic values] the disputes over policy alternatives are nearly always disputes over a set of alternatives that have already been winnowed down to those within the broad area of basic agreement." (p. 131-2). Without this prior consensus on basic values, democracy would not survive for very long (p. 132). The consensus on norms and values protects minorities, not institutional restraints. "To assume that this country has remained democratic because of its constitution seems to me an obvious reversal of the relation; it is much more plausible to suppose that the constitution has remained because our society is essentially democratic." (143)

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Dahl, Robert (author)American PoliticsNormsRational ChoiceDemocracyInterest GroupsMajoritarianismCivil SocietyInstitutions

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