Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 11: “The political institutions of representative democracy”

December 24, 2007

Before conflating eklogecracy with democratic government, Dahl devotes a short section (pp. 12-14) to arguing that certain institutions or patterns, characteristic of eklogecracy, are necessary (but not sufficient) for democracy. He lists 6 such patterns:

  1. Elective representatives
  2. Free, fair and frequent elections
  3. Freedom of expression
  4. Alternative sources of information
  5. Associational autonomy
  6. Inclusion of all members of the demos

Dahl sees a system possessing these patterns as approximating Ideal Democracy. A more realistic evaluation of those patterns – at least as they are commonly interpreted and implemented in the West – is that they form a system in which whoever can command the attention of large numbers of people possesses great political power.

Each of the six patterns has two aspects: passive and active – the first applying to the masses, the other to a political elite.

“Elective representatives” allows the masses to elect delegates, and allows the elite to become delegates. “Free, fair and frequent elections” gives the people a menu of delegates to choose from, and guarantees the elite the possibility of being included in the menu.

“Freedom of expression” gives the average citizen the ability to express himself freely to small audiences – his friends and family and strangers met by chance – and maybe occasionally to somewhat bigger audiences – through letters to the editor. To the elite, this principle guarantees continuous access and control of mass media and, through them, the attention of vast audiences, day after day.

“Alternative sources of information”, in a manner analogous to “free, fair and frequent elections, gives the people a menu of information sources to choose from, and guarantees the elite the possibility of controlling one of the items on the menu.

“Associational autonomy” allows people to form small, politically weak, organizations and to be rank-and-file members in large, politically potent, organizations. To the elite it gives the opportunity to organize, control, and mobilize the members and resources of the large organizations.

“Inclusion of all members of the demos”, means, of course, that everybody can be a member of the masses. Membership in the elite, however, is essentially restricted to those people who are co-opted by existing elite, but is also theoretically open to any person who can, through some act of distinction, draw to himself enough attention by the masses.

Eklogecracy, therefore, is not an approximation of democracy. It is rather an oligarchical government of a specific type – one in which membership of the oligarchy depends on popular acceptance and in which social status and material resources are routinely used to achieve such acceptance. The conception of this structure has been quite explicit in the minds and communications of the designers of the American constitution (for that reason, for example, the word “republic” was used by the federalists rather than “democracy”). This has been obscured by their public rhetoric and by later reinterpretation and rationalization. Joseph Schumpeter has also proposed a similar analysis as part of his competition-for-power model presented in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy1.

For the federalists and Schumpeter the account of eklogecracy as non-democratic is normative as well as descriptive. Here I present it merely as fact2, and wish to argue that eklogecracy must be recognized for what it is, if democratic reform is to be successful.


[1] For example, in the chapter “The Inference”, Schumpeter explains: “The voters outside of parliament must respect the division of labor between themselves and the politicians they elect. They must not withdraw confidence too easily between elections and they must understand that, once they have elected an individual, political action is his business and not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him about what he is to do [… S]uccessful democratic practice in great and complicated societies has invariably been hostile to political back-seat driving — to the point of resorting to secret diplomacy and lying about intentions and commitments — and that it takes a lot of self -control on the part of the citizen to refrain from it.”

[2] Unlike the federalists, Schumpeter does use the term “democracy”. He uses is however to describe the prevailing political system in the West at his time (what I call eklogecracy) and does not mean to imply political equality.

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