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Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition

Robert A. Dahl

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.

Review © 2000 Branislav L. Slantchev

Main Thesis

Polyarchy 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

Historiographical Observations

Chapters 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