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.

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Dahl’s description of the Ideal Democracy includes 5 conditions which are fulfilled by a society in which people are politically equal. He seems to consider these conditions to be both necessary and sufficient:

  1. Effective participation
  2. Equality in voting
  3. Gaining enlighten understanding
  4. Final control of the agenda
  5. Inclusion

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There exists no reasonable definition of democracy except for being a system of government in which all those subject to the government are politically equal – that is, have equal influence on government policy. Standard dictionary definitions, such as Merriam-Webster’s:

1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections,

are uninformative platitudes (“government by the people”, “government in which the supreme power is vested in the people”), misleading (“rule of the majority”), wrong, or a mix of all of those (“system of representation involving periodically held free elections”).

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Robert Dahl is one of the best scholars of democracy that mainstream America has to offer – he is substantive (i.e., not given to excessive theorizing and pretense), he is not a servant of the powerful (i.e., he is willing to acknowledge many of the problems of the established system), and he is more empirical than dogmatic. That said,Dahl is a full member of the establishment – meaning that there are some assumptions he must accept and some lines of thought he cannot pursue.

His booklet “On Political Equality” is a typical result of these circumstances: satisfying in parts, frustrating in others. I intend in upcoming posts to address the main points made by Dahl in “On Political Equality” and discuss strengths and weaknesses of his arguments.