Robert A. Dahl

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Robert A. Dahl
Robert A. Dahl in the Classroom.jpg
Dahl teaching a political science class at Yale University
Robert Alan Dahl

(1915-12-17)December 17, 1915
DiedFebruary 5, 2014(2014-02-05) (aged 98)
Known for
  • Mary Louise Bartlett (1940–1970)
  • Ann Sale (1973–2014)
Scientific career
FieldsPolitical science, Democratic theory
ThesisSocialist Programs and Democratic Politics: An Analysis
Academic advisors
Notable students

Robert Alan Dahl (/dɑːl/; December 17, 1915 – February 5, 2014) was a political theorist and Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. He established the pluralist theory of democracy—in which political outcomes are enacted through competitive, if unequal, interest groups—and introduced "polyarchy" as a descriptor of actual democratic governance. An originator of "empirical theory" and known for advancing behavioralist characterizations of political power, Dahl's research focused on the nature of decision making in actual institutions, such as American cities.[1][2] He is the most important scholar associated with the pluralist approach to describing and understanding both city and national power structures.[3] In addition to his work on the descriptive theory of democracy, he was long occupied with the formulation of the constituent elements of democracy considered as a theoretical but realizable ideal. By virtue of the exceptional cogency, clarity, and veracity of his portrayal of some of the key characteristics of realizable-ideal democracy, as well as his outstanding descriptive analysis of the dynamics of modern pluralist-democracy, he is one of the greatest theorists of democracy in history.

Dahl received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1936.[4] He then went on to receive his Ph.D. at Yale in 1940 and served on its political science faculty from 1946 to 1986. His influential early books include A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who Governs? (1961), and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967), which presented pluralistic explanations for political rule in the United States.[5][6] He was elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1966.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. Mills held that America's governments are in the grasp of a unitary and demographically narrow power elite. Dahl responded that there are many different elites involved, who have to work both in contention and in compromise with one another. If this is not democracy in a populist sense, Dahl contended, it is at least polyarchy (or pluralism). In perhaps his best known work, Who Governs? (1961), he examines the power structures (both formal and informal) in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.[7]

From the late 1960s onwards, his conclusions were challenged by scholars such as G. William Domhoff and Charles E. Lindblom (a friend and colleague of Dahl).[8][9]

In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) Dahl argued that the US Constitution is much less democratic than it ought to be, given that its authors were operating from a position of "profound ignorance" about the future. However, he adds that there is little or nothing that can be done about this "short of some constitutional breakdown, which I neither foresee nor, certainly, wish for."[10]

Influence terms[edit]

One of his many contributions is his explication of the varieties of power, which he defines as A getting B to do what A wants. Dahl prefers the more neutral "influence terms" (Michael G. Roskin), which he arrayed on a scale from best to worst:

  1. Rational Persuasion, the nicest form of influence, means telling the truth and explaining why someone should do something, like a doctor convincing a patient to stop smoking.
  2. Manipulative persuasion, a notch lower, means lying or misleading to get someone to do something.
  3. Inducement, still lower, means offering rewards or punishments to get someone to do something, like bribery.
  4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of a job.
  5. Coercion is power with no way out.
  6. Physical force is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, the governments that use influence at the higher end of the scale are best. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.[citation needed]

Democracy and polyarchies[edit]

In his book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl clarifies his view about democracy. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia.[11] To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria:[12]

  1. Effective participation
    Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.
  2. Voting equality at the decisive stage
    Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
  3. Enlightened understanding
    Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.
  4. Control of the agenda
    Demos or people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation.
  5. Inclusiveness
    Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process.

Instead, he calls politically advanced countries "polyarchies". Polyarchies have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy. Those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power.[13]


Dahl was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.[6]


Sociologist G. William Domhoff strongly disagrees with Dahl's view of power in New Haven, CT in the 1960s.[14]


The best known of Dahl's works include:

  • Dahl, Robert A.; Lindblom, Charles E. (1953). Politics, Economics, and Welfare.
  • Dahl, Robert (2006) [1956]. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-13434-5.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). "The Concept of Power." Systems Research and Behavioral Science 2(3), 201–215.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). "Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker." Journal of Public Law 6: 279–295.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1960). Social science research on business: product and potential.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1961). Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1963). Modern Political Analysis.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1966). Political oppositions in Western Democracies.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1968). Pluralist democracy in the United States: conflict and consent.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1970). After the Revolution?: Authority in a good society.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1971). Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-01565-2.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Tufte, Edward R. (1973). Size and Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1983). Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (December 1984). "Polyarchy, pluralism, and scale". Scandinavian Political Studies. 7 (4): 225–240. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.1984.tb00304.x.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) Full text.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). A Preface to Economic Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1997). Toward Democracy - a Journey: Reflections, 1940–1997.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1998). On Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2002). How Democratic Is the American Constitution?.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Shapiro, Ian; Cheibub, José Antonio, eds. (2003). The Democracy Sourcebook.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). After The Gold Rush.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require?. Political Science Quarterly 120:2, pp. 187–197.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2006). On Political Equality.


  1. ^ Rodrigues, Adrien; Lloyd-Thomas, Matthew (February 7, 2014). "Dahl's Legacy Remembered". Yale Daily News. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  2. ^ Campbell, John C. (Fall 1985). "Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy Versus Guardianship". Foreign Affairs. No. Fall 1985. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  3. ^ Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 164.
  4. ^ "Robert Dahl Passing". UW Political Science Department. Retrieved April 30, 2017.
  5. ^ "Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor Emeritus in Political Science, passes away". Yale University Department of Political Science. February 7, 2014. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Martin, Douglas (February 8, 2014). "Robert A. Dahl, defined politics and power; at 98". The New York Times.
  7. ^ Eulau, Heinz (March 1962). "Reviewed work: Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl". American Political Science Review. 56 (1): 144–145. doi:10.2307/1953105. JSTOR 1953105.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  8. ^ G. William Domhoff, Who really rules?: New Haven and community power reexamined (Transaction Books, 1978).
  9. ^ David Vogel, Fluctuating fortunes: The political power of business in America (2003)
  10. ^ Robert Alan Dahl (2003). How Democratic is the American Constitution?. Yale UP. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-300-09524-1.
  11. ^ Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics. Yale University Press. pp. 131. ISBN 978-0-300-04938-1.
  12. ^ R.A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 221
  13. ^ R.A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, p. 222
  14. ^ Domhoff, G. William (Fall 1985). "Who Really Ruled in Dahl's New Haven?".


  • Roskin, Cord, Medeiros, Jones. (2008). Political Science: An Introduction, (10th Edition). New Jersey. ISBN 978-0-13-242576-6
  • Jeong Chun Hai @Ibrahim, & Nor Fadzlina Nawi. (2007). Principles of Public Administration: An Introduction. Kuala Lumpur: Karisma Publications. ISBN 978-983-195-253-5

Further reading[edit]

  • Morriss, Peter (October 1972). "Power in New Haven: a reassessment of 'Who Governs?'". British Journal of Political Science. 2 (4): 457–465. doi:10.1017/S0007123407000221. JSTOR 193412.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Shapiro, Ian, and Grant Reeher, eds Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics: Essays in Honor of Robert A. Dahl (Westview Press, 1988)
  • Interview by Richard Snyder: "Robert A. Dahl: Normative Theory, Empirical Research and Democracy," pp. 113–149, in Gerardo L. Munck and Richard Snyder, Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

External links[edit]