Robert A Dahl's on Democracy Believe We Book Report

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Robert A. Dahl's On Democracy believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy - but that could change.

Dan Quayle (1947 -), 5/22/89

The term, democracy, means many things in popular discourse. One has only to turn on the television to hear presidential speeches, public discussion, or news commentators espousing its virtues -- "goodness," "virtue," and "liberty," almost as if the term has become synonymous with freedom itself. In fact this trend is becoming so prevalent, that I find myself checking with each new release of Microsoft Word, if ther term "democracy" might yield "freedom" in its thesaurus.

Although today's average rabid patriot (a species won't to exclaim statements like, "Our boys are over there in eye-rak fighting for our freedom!") may see nothing amiss with this notion, there remains the issue of the tremendous disservice that results from the simplistic coupling of the two terms, for if democracy is a form of government to be touted, championed, and, allegedly fought for, it follows that the masses of men and women who do "tout" should also be informed about its features in some depth.

Robert A Dahl's book, On Democracy, does exactly that. According to the front flap blurb at the beginning of the 1998 hard-cover edition:

Robert Dahl begins with an overview of the early history of democracy. He goes on to discuss differences among democracies, criteria for a democratic process, basic institutions necessary for advancing the goals of democracy, and the social and economic conditions that favor the development and maintenance of these institutions.

Indeed, Dahl discusses democracy in clear, simple terms, covering basic themes, issues, and questions of the governmental system as practiced, and not by dipping into complex themes of theory and discourse.

This makes the book tremendously readable, be one rabid patriot or no.

The theory that Dahl does cover is at its most basic, and is focused on democracy, not as a merely "American" institution, nor limited to the United States as context. Instead, he covers the basics of what "constitutes a democracy" in general, which he often illustrates with "group/organization" examples or examples from other nations. He comes up with the following criteria:

What is democracy?

Democracy provides opportunities for:

Effective participation

Equality in voting

Gaining enlightened understanding

Exercising final control over the agenda

Inclusion of Adults

Interestingly, Dahl's style in the book often explains democracy, not in the terms of a single large national representative government (especially, as one might expect, the American), but by instead using descriptions of how a small group of people or an organization might arrange itself to accommodate the equality and "voice" of all of its members. This, I believe, he does, in order to separate the definition of democracy from its popular associations.

Indeed, Dahl uses an extremely basic (in terms of example) method to come to his main criteria for true democracy, namely "political equality." He writes:

to be democratic the government of a state must satisfy a standard. Let me put it this way: Full inclusion. The citizen body in a democratically governed state must include all persons subject to the laws of that state except transients and person[s] proved to be incapable of caring for them (78).

Although Dahl does simplify his description of democracy, this does not prevent him from illuminating some of its practical difficulties. For example, he acknowledges the fact that, although all individuals hold an equal vote, a small group of "elites" may control the agenda. If this is the case, democracy is flawed, saying, "...if some members are given greater opportunities than others for expressing their views, their policies are more likely to prevail" (39). Further, he acknowledges that this, especially due to financial factors, can result in the formation of organized groups that, in effect, appropriate a great portion of the public "voice" and use it to further their own interests and agendas (especially in consideration of today's special interest groups).

It is this from this idea that Dahl's most interesting argument in relationship to the United States springs, that this control of the agenda, through a greater "voice" (which arises out of inequalities in opportunity, financial resources, and education, to name a few) cripples democracy.

Further, he raises the issue of the role of non-homogenous groups of people (either a growing, or an original factor in many countries, including the United States), and the relationship of race/ethnicity/minority status to "voice" and achieving adequate representation in that voice.

Dahl also touches on…[continue]

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