Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 3: Dahl conflates “Ideal democracy” and “Actual Democratic Systems”

September 26, 2007

Having discussed briefly his rather convincing concept of Ideal Democracy, Dahl quickly moves on to what he calls “Actual Democratic Systems,” being mainly modern Western-style government systems (WSGSs), but including also the Athenian system, both of which he presents as being approximations to the ideal democracy.

The remainder of the book usually makes no clear distinction between an “Ideal Democracy” and “Actual Democratic Systems”. For example, the remainder of chapter 2 – the sections “The growth of political equality” (pp. 22-24), and “A brief sketch of movements toward political equality” (pp. 25-29) – deals mainly with the existence of WSGS institutions and the widening of voting rights, implying that those are equivalent to, or at least direct indicators of, political equality. No reference to the standard laid out in the description of the Ideal Democracy is made. Similarly, chapter 4, “A respectable role for emotions”, makes frequent references to events associated with the formation of WSGSs as we know them today in order to make arguments about the processes leading to political equality.

Continuing to conflate those concepts, chapter 5, “Political equality, human nature and society”, which deals with barriers to achieving political equality at the state level, is a mix of arguments, some of which relate to the Ideal Democracy standard, while others deal with conditions existing in WSGSs and in the world in which they exist.

The conflation of Ideal Democracy and WSGS is a commonplace, with obvious political aims and implications. Although it is clear that Dahl is far from making the claim that the two are identical (often using the term “democratic” in quotes when referring to WSGSs), his presentation in this book serves to further promote the identification of the two. For one thing, conflating the two leaves Dahl no room to envision a democratic system that is not a WSGS. Again, it may be speculated that making the distinction any sharper than he has would have moved him out of an intellectual and practical comfort zone.

I wish to amend this flaw by making two passes through the rest of the book – one in which the focus of attention is Ideal Democracy, the other in which the focus is on WSGSs. Somewhere (possibly in a third pass) I intend to deal with the other kind of Actual Democratic Systems – the Athenian system and with hypothetical systems that may be used to approximate the Democratic Ideal.

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3 Responses to “Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 3: Dahl conflates “Ideal democracy” and “Actual Democratic Systems””


  1. Typo: “The conflation of Ideal Democracy and WSGS is _a_ commonplace, with obvious political aims and implications.”

    Interesting review. I plan to read it, or perhaps “Democracy and its critics”.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    My usage is grammatical:

    com·mon·place

    2 a : an obvious or trite comment : TRUISM

    Looking at the definition, however, I am not sure if it implies that the statement is actually true. I, of course, did not want to make that implication.

    “On political equality” is a much lighter (and shorter) read than “Democracy and its critics.” I have read the latter a few years ago and was quite impressed by it at the time. I did not find it nearly as problematic as I find “On political equality”. I am not sure if Dahl changed or I did – I guess I should look at it again.

    As I recall, it was while reading that book that I realized that the Supreme Court is an anti-democratic institution. Today, I consider that a near-obvious observation.


  3. […] Equality” Dahl spends 14 paging talking about the “Ideal Democracy“, “Actual Democratic Systems“, and “Democratic rights.” Then, Dahl moves on to describe what he sees as the […]

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