Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition
Robert A. Dahl
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
Review © 2000 Branislav L. Slantchev
Main ThesisPolyarchy is a regime with two dimensions: (i) contestation---permissible opposition, public competition; and (ii) participation---right to participate in public contestation (p. 4). There are seven conditions for the development and existence of systems of public contestation, i.e. circumstances that increase the mutual security of government and oppositions (p. 16). The ``logico-empirical'' study is mainly logic derived from brute empiricism. There is nary a theory in sight, some of the evidence no longer supports the claims (giving Chile as an example of country where the military has traditionally been reluctant to interfere in politics (p. 50) is definitely pre-1973; the notion that we cannot expect to see many new polyarchies is belied by post-1989 experiences, which also furnish ample refutation to other conditions). Dahl is also preoccupied with the benefits of a two-party system, and limiting proliferation of political cleavages (especially evident in the postscript). However, this appears to be a philosophical commitment and does not follow from his arguments, and indeed has little relevance (see Europe, India, etc.)
Summary of Arguments and Subsidiary Points
- Contestation and Participation. Both are characteristics of polyarchies. A regime that has neither, is a closed hegemony; a liberalized but non-inclusive regime is a competitive oligarchy; and an inclusive but non-liberalized regime is an inclusive hegemony (p.7). This typology allows us to trace three different routes of democratization: (i) through liberalization first, followed by participation (the most common and arguably, the most enduring); (ii) through participation first, followed by liberalization (the most dangerous and susceptible to reversion); and (iii) through a revolutionary jump which liberalizes and becomes inclusive simultaneously (unstable). Political contestation (i.e. extension of suffrage and electoral competition) occurs when the mutual security of government and opposition is assured, which occurs when the costs of suppression exceed the costs of toleration (p.15).
- Polyarchy Matters: (i) liberal freedoms (p. 20); (ii) composition of parliaments and political leadership more representative of various socioeconomic strata (pp. 22-3); (iii) groups whose support politicians need can participate more easily (p. 25); (iv) more preferences represented in policy making (p. 26); (v) government less likely to engage in systematic violence against its citizens (p. 27). However, polyarchies are no more considerate than other regimes toward people who are effectively excluded from the rights of citizens (p. 29).
- First Condition---Historical Sequences: (i) the path of transformation---most common pattern is when competitive politics precede expansion in participation, good because elites accustomed to looking for mutual guarantees (p. 38), however this path is no longer available to most countries; and (ii) the specific inauguration---peaceful evolution is most likely to result in a polyarchy supported by widespread legitimacy (p. 41), not likely to succeed in formerly dependent nations whose new nationalist leaders install polyarchy after winning independence.
- Second Condition---Concentration of Socioeconomic Order: as governments become less capable of coercing (through violence or other sanctions) the opposition, they are more likely to tolerate opposition (p. 49). Violence: If the military is depoliticized, small, dispersed, or non-existent, the conditions favor polyarchy. If the military is large, centralized, and hierarchical, the converse is true (p. 50). Socio-economic sanctions: traditional peasant societies have high propensity for inequality, hierarchy, and political hegemony; free farmer societies are more egalitarian and democratic (p. 53). The case for commercial and industrial societies is ambiguous; private ownership is neither necessary nor sufficient, however, pluralistic social order can exist in a country with decentralized economy (p. 61).
- Third Condition---Level of Development: the higher the level of socioeconomic development of a country, the more likely it is to have a competitive and inclusive political regime (pp. 64-5). It is not clear whether there exist thresholds below which polyarchy is impossible and above which a foregone conclusion; also, the direction of causality goes both ways (pp. 69-71). Preindustrial societies are a poor setting for polyarchy only to the extent they lack the socioeconomic conditions for it, but this is not an inherent feature of such societies (e.g. Sweden, US, Canada, Australia, etc.) The chances of polyarchy depend on (i) literacy, education, and communication (p. 75); and (ii) the creation of a pluralistic rather than centrally dominated social order (p. 76). An advanced economy automatically provides for both.
- Fourth Condition---Level of Inequality: extreme inequality in political resources is more likely to result in hegemony (p. 82). As a country approaches high levels of industrialization, the distribution of political resources achieves greater parity, and the system becomes one of dispersed inequality which means that parties severely disadvantage in one resource may have access to other partly offsetting resource (pp. 86-7). When demands for greater equality arise, governments may respond and gain allegiance among the deprived groups (p. 90). However, disadvantaged groups may not demand greater equality because (i) they may not perceive it (p. 96); (ii) they may not consider it relevant to their condition (p. 97); (iii) they may appraise it as legitimate (p. 100); (iv) they may turn to resignation instead of activism (p. 102).
- Fifth Condition---Political Cleavages: competitive political systems do not easily manage (and perhaps cannot handle) conflicts where a large segment of the population feels its way of life and highest values severely threatened by another segment (p. 105). Such differences are in religion, language, race, ethnicity, or region (not class, as frequently thought). Polyarchy is more frequently found in homogeneous societies (p. 108). There are three conditions if a country with considerable subcultural pluralism is to maintain low levels of conflict: (i) no subculture is barred indefinitely from participation in government (p. 115); (ii) there exists a high level of security for the various subcultures (p. 118); and (iii) if people believe polyarchy is effective in responding to demands and coping with major problems of the country (p. 119). All three can probably be adequately addressed through proportional representation, federalist arrangements, and local autonomy, which makes Dahl's insistence on two-party systems look odd.
- Sixth Condition---Beliefs of Political Activists: chances of polyarchy are
low if (i) elites and voters lack belief in its institutions; legitimacy (p. 132);
(ii) most people believe the proper relation is one of hierarchy, command, and obedience;
attitude toward authority (p. 141); (iii) beliefs about the effectiveness of
government are uncertain or shallow effectiveness (p. 147); (iv) members of the
political system distrust and lack confidence in each other; trust (p. 150); (v)
people believe either in strictly competitive (Italy) or strictly cooperative (India)
nature of politics; conflict and cooperation desirable, lead to compromise (p. 160).
Acquiring a new political belief depends on (i) exposure to it (p. 169); (ii) its prestige (p. 171); (iii) its consistency with previous beliefs (p. 175); (iv) its consistency with previous experience (p. 177). We don't know how this works.
- Seventh Condition---Foreign Control: foreign domination (only form considered) can influence the chances of polyarchy through (i) actions of foreigners affecting any of the previous six conditions, and the beliefs of political activists in particular; (ii) reducing the options available to a regime; or (iii) outright domination (p. 191).
Historiographical ObservationsChapters 1 and 2 are introductory; they define the concept of polyarchy and its two main dimensions, as well as testify to the important consequences of having it. Chapters 3 through 9 are the seven conditions for the transition from a closed hegemonic regime to polyarchy. Most chapters have a brief summary at the end. The postscript (chapter 11) outlines recommendations to political activists who seek to democratize their countries. These are either obvious, stupid, incorrect, or irrelevant. Appendix B lists all countries classified as polyarchies circa 1969, according to the methodology described in Appendix A.
February 2, 2000