Robert Alan Dahl

Robert Alan Dahl

One of the most outstanding political scientists of our time
Date of Birth: 17.12.1915
Country: USA

  1. Biography of Robert Alan Dahl
  2. The Dispute with C. Wright Mills
  3. Contributions to Political Science
  4. Later Years and Criticisms

Biography of Robert Alan Dahl

Robert Alan Dahl, one of the most prominent political scientists of our time, was born on December 17, 1915, in Inwood, Iowa. He earned his doctorate in political science from Yale University in 1940 and went on to become a distinguished professor of political science (Sterling Professor) at Yale University. Dahl also served as the president of the American Political Science Association.

The Dispute with C. Wright Mills

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dahl found himself engaged in a dispute with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. While Mills believed that the American government was controlled by a unified and demographically narrow power elite, Dahl argued that multiple elite groups were involved in the political process, competing and compromising with each other. Dahl referred to this as "polyarchy" or pluralism, which he considered to be a form of democracy, even if it did not align with the popular perception of democracy.

Contributions to Political Science

One of Dahl's notable achievements was his elucidation of power dynamics. He presented a simple model in which "A" influences "B" to do what "A" wants. He outlined a scale of influence, ranging from the best to the worst way to exert power:
1. Rational persuasion, the most effective form of influence, involves presenting the truth and explaining why someone should do something, similar to how a doctor convinces a patient to quit smoking.
2. Manipulative persuasion, which involves lying and deceiving to compel someone to act.
3. The use of rewards or punishments, which may involve bribery.
4. Coercion, where power threatens severe punishments such as job loss or imprisonment.
5. Finally, physical force, the "last resort" form of coercion that involves inflicting bodily harm or the threat of it.

Dahl's empirical research on democracy and pluralism introduced minimal procedural requirements that he believed a democracy should meet:
1. Political control over government decisions.
2. Elected positions should be obtained through regular and fair elections, free from violence. Elections should be open.
3. Any adult citizen should have the right to participate in elections.
4. Almost all adult citizens should have the right to run for office.
5. Citizens should have the right to speak out and develop their political preferences without fear of punishment.
6. Citizens should have the right to seek alternative sources of information that are legally protected.
7. Citizens should have the right to create independent political parties, interest groups, and other organizations separate from the state.

Later Years and Criticisms

In his later years, Dahl adopted a more pessimistic tone in his works. In his book "How Democratic Is the American Constitution?" published in 2001, he argued that the Constitution is much less democratic than it should be, considering that its authors worked from a position of "deep ignorance" about the future.

Dahl's conclusions have been challenged by scholars such as G. William Domhoff and Charles E. Lindblom. Domhoff vehemently disagreed with Dahl's assessment of New Haven's influence in the 1960s as outlined in his work "Who Governs?" Domhoff presented his criticism in his own work titled "Who Really Ruled in Dahl's New Haven." Politician and philosopher Charles Blattberg criticized Dahl's attempt to define "democracy" by providing necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence.

In recognition of his contributions to political science, Robert A. Dahl was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.