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Robert Alan Dahl (born 17 December 1915), is the Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale Universitymarker, where he earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1940. He is past president of the American Political Science Association and one of the most distinguished political scientists writing today. Dahl has often been described as "the Dean" of American political scientists. He earned this title by his prolific writing output and the fact that scores of prominent political scientists studied under him.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in a landmark dispute 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, Connecticutmarker, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.

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).

In more recent years, Dahl's writings have taken on a more pessimistic tone. In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) he argued that the 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."

Influence Terms

One of Robert Dahl’s 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 your doctor convincing you 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, i.e. like bribery.
  4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of job.
  5. Coercion is power with no way out; you have to do it.
  6. Physical force – is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, we can tell which governments are best; the ones that use influence at the higher end of the scale. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.

Democracy and polyarchies

In another landmark book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl makes his view about democracy clear. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia. To reach the ideal requires meeting 5 criteria:
  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 judgements will be counted as equal in weights to the judgements 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.

He was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.


  • Sociologist G. William Domhoff strongly disagrees with Dahl's view of power in New Havenmarker, CT in the 1960s: "Who Really Ruled in Dahl's New Haven?"
  • Political philosopher Charles Blattberg has criticized Dahl's attempt to define democracy with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. See Blattberg, From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, ch. 5. ISBN 0-19-829688-6.


The most well-known of Dahl's works include:
  • 1953 - Politics, Economics, and Welfare (with Charles E. Lindblom)
  • 1956 - A Preface to Democratic Theory (new edition in 2006)
  • 1957 - Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker
  • 1960 - Social science research on business: product and potential
  • 1961 - Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City
  • 1963 - Modern Political Analysis
  • 1966 - Political oppositions in Western Democracies
  • 1968 - Pluralist democracy in the United States : conflict and consent
  • 1970 - After the Revolution? : Authority in a good society
  • 1971 - Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition
  • 1973 - Size and Democracy (with Edward R. Tufte)
  • 1983 - Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control
  • 1985 - A Preface to Economic Democracy
  • 1985 - Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship
  • 1989 - Democracy and Its Critics
  • 1997 - Toward Democracy - a Journey: Reflections, 1940-1997
  • 1998 - On Democracy
  • 2002 - How Democratic Is the American Constitution?
  • 2003 - The Democracy Sourcebook. (An anthology edited by Robert A. Dahl, Ian Shapiro and José Antonio Cheibub)
  • 2005 - After The Gold Rush
  • 2006 - On Political Equality

References & External links

  1. Robert Alan Dahl Papers

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