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Overview Of Robert Dahl’s Theory Of Democracy

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Robert Dahl was an American political scientist that led theories based on political pluralism. He accentuated the role of politics within groups, institutions and organizations. Dahl explicitly wrote about his political view of democracy based on two leading views, the substantive view and the procedural or minimalist view. The substantive view “classifies political regimes in terms of the outcomes that they produce” while the procedural or minimalist view “classifies political regimes in terms of their institutions or procedures”. Albeit, he preferred the procedural or minimalist view, therefore, the procedures were far more critical than the outcome. Dahl believed that large countries could not be completely democratized thus alluding to the term “polyarchies”. These polyarchies are based on two volumes, inclusion and contestation.

The first term expresses the notion of who gets to participate in politics and the latter expresses a theory of democratic competition. During the Soviet Union for example, there was a lot of inclusion but the inclusion was not completely valid since there was only one party. Therefore, inclusion and contestation can be duplicitous. In addition, the North Korean regime acts as though they exercise democracy and political participation when they in fact practice absolutism and do not prioritize their citizens’ voices. Furthermore, China has low levels of both inclusion and contestation because there is only one party to vote for. Democracy as a concept was very much utopian but there were few countries that could come close to achieving democracy because they managed to balance power in the hands of the many rather than the few such as the United States. This is in contrast to Aristotle’s substantive view that distinguished good or bad regimes based on how they served the public interest. This utopian concept is in relation to Dalh’s notion of polyarchies which were neither democratic nor dictatorial and invested power into the hands of many.

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Two measures relative to Dalh’s theory of democracy are Democratic-Dictatorship (DD) and Polity IV. DD states that a country is a democracy if “the chief executive is elected, the legislature is elected, there is more than one party competing in elections and there has been an alteration in power under identical electoral rules”. This measure is indubitably dichotomous in a sense that it is either a dictatorship or a democracy in contrast to Dalh’s view, which expresses the regime as a continuous sequence. The Polity IV measure is based on five leading attributes, “competitiveness and openness of executive recruitment, executive constraints/ decision rules and regulation and competitiveness of participation.” This is similar to Dahl’s concept of contestation because it requires a political and electoral competitiveness and the presence of more than one party. Both DD and Polity IV take the procedural or minimalist view. Democracy can be defined as a result of contested elections, rather, elections that have undergone political competitiveness.

I do agree with Dalh’s minimalist measure for innumerable reasons. Firstly, political regimes are far more complex than they appear; thus, it is difficult to define a regime in black and white as dictatorial or democratic. The current Sudanese government is an example of a regime that masks itself with political participation and elections by instilling fear and using the “democratic” process to continue to reign. Secondly, the substantive view does not explicitly determine whether the government is democratic or not. In the minimalist view democracy depends on the presence of certain institutions. If we compare the possibility of democracy with that of Athens, one would conclude that true substantive democracy (democracy in control of the people) is neither ideal nor possible. Democracy was possible in Athens because it was comprised of a small community. Dahl’s solution for citizens who had a deep angst against tyranny and the equally as villainous majority was for leaders to compete for electoral support.

Therefore, there must be multiple sovereign powers and institutions from the elitist side as well as from the people. Similarly, is the oxymoronically concept of a dictatorial majority, which one could assume that substantive democracy may allude to. Classifying political regimes in terms of their institutions would entail phenomena’s such as freedom of expression, fair elections and elected officials. In addition, the substantive view could create a system of corruption that would be obstreperous to amend. Both measures exhibit various pros and cons and the idea of democracy continues to intrigue a multitude of political scientists and educators.


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