Polyarchy (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of politics described by American political scientist Robert Dahl (1915-).

In modern democracies the people cannot literally rule in the classic sense of democracy, but if there are free and open democratic procedures, and a variety of groups and organizations, then the many may be said to rule.

Polyarchy can be said to exist when democracy mingles effectively with pluralism.

Robert A Dahl, Polyarchy (New Haven, 1971)


Dahl’s original theory of polyarchal democracy is in his 1956 book, A Preface to Democratic Theory. His theory evolved over the decades, and the description in later writings is somewhat different.

A Preface to Democratic Theory

In this book, Dahl gives eight conditions, which measure the extent to which majority rule is in effect in an organization. These are (p. 84):

  • Every member of the organization performs the acts we assume to constitute an expression of preference among the scheduled alternatives, e.g., voting.
  • In tabulating these expressions (votes), the weight assigned to each individual is identical.
  • The alternative with the greatest number of votes is declared the winning choice.
  • Any member who perceives a set of alternatives, at least one of which he regards as preferable to any of the alternatives presently scheduled, can insert his preferred alternative(s) among those scheduled for voting.
  • All individuals possess identical information about the alternatives.
  • Alternatives (leaders or policies) with the greatest number of votes displace any alternatives (leaders or policies) with fewer votes.
  • The orders of elected officials are executed.
  • Either all interelection decisions are subordinate or executory to those arrived at during the election stage, i.e., elections are in a sense controlling; or new decisions during the interelection period are governed by the preceding seven conditions, operating, however, under rather different institutional circumstances; or both.

Dahl hypothesized that each of these conditions can be quantified, and suggested using the term polyarchy to describe an organization that scores high on the scales for all the eight conditions.

Also, Dahl viewed polyarchy as a system that manages to supply a high level of inclusiveness and a high level of liberalization to its citizens.

Democracy and its critics

In his 1989 book, Democracy and its critics, Dahl gives the following characteristics of a polyarchy (p. 233):

  • Control over governmental decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.
  • Elected officials are chosen and peacefully removed in relatively frequent, fair and free elections in which coercion is quite limited.
  • Practically all adults have the right to vote in these elections.
  • Most adults also have the right to run for the public offices for which candidates run in these elections.
  • Citizens have an effectively enforced right to freedom of expression, particularly political expression, including criticism of the officials, the conduct of the government, the prevailing political, economic, and social system, and the dominant ideology.
  • They also have access to alternative sources of information that are not monopolized by the government or any other single group.
  • Finally, they have an effectively enforced right to form and join autonomous associations, including political associations, such as political parties and interest groups, that attempt to influence the government by competing in elections and by other peaceful means.

Dahl’s Seven Sets of Conditions for Polyarchy are:

  1. Historical Sequence- peaceful evolution within an independent nation-state
  2. Socioeconomic Order-concentration- a competitive regime cannot be maintained in a country where military forces are accustomed to intervening
  3. Socioeconomic Order-level of development
    1. Provide literacy, education, communication
    2. Create a pluralistic social order
    3. Prevent Inequalities
  4. Equalities and Inequalities
    1. Hegemonic regimes reduce public contestation
    2. Inequalities increase the chance comparative politics will displace hegemony
  5. Subcultures, Cleavage Patterns and, Governmental Effectiveness
  6. The Beliefs of Political Activists- treat them as major independent variables
  7. Foreign Control- foreign domination can affect all the conditions and alter available options


Polyarchy and its procedures by itself may be insufficient for achieving full democracy. For example, poor people may be unable to participate in the political process. It is thought so, because some authors see polyarchy as a form of government that is not intended for greater social justice and cultural realization and to allow the repressed to politically participate.[6]

According to William I. Robinson, it is a system where a small group actually rules on behalf of capital, and the majority’s decision making is confined to choosing among a selective number of elites within tightly controlled elective processes. It is a form of consensual domination made possible by the structural domination of the global capital which allowed concentration of political powers.[7] Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom noted that political bargaining is an essential feature of polyarchy, particularly in the US.[8]

Moreover, perceived polyarchies – such as the United States – may bar a substantial number of its citizens from participating in its national electoral process. For example, more than four million U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are excluded from participating in the election of any voting-member of Congress, which are the political bodies that hold ultimate sovereignty over them. Robinson argues that they are effectively taxed without lawful representation (although the current status of these territories is as a matter of popular consensus in individual cases).[9][10]

In Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Dahl argues that an increase in citizen political involvement may not always be beneficial for polyarchy. An increase in the political participation of members of less educated classes, for example, could reduce the support for the basic norms of polyarchy, because members of those classes are more pre-disposed to be authoritarian-minded.[11][4]

In a discussion of contemporary British foreign policy, Mark Curtis stated that “Polyarchy is generally what British leaders mean when they speak of promoting ‘democracy’ abroad. This is a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites.”[12]

It is also being promoted by the transnational elites in the South as a different form from the authoritarianism and dictatorship to the North as a part of democracy promotion.[13] Robinson argues that this is to cultivate transnational elites who will open up their countries following transnational agenda of neoliberalism where transnational capital mobility and globalized circuits of production and distribution is established. For example, it was promoted to Nicaragua, Chile, Haiti, the Philippines, South Africa and the former Soviet Bloc countries

One thought on “Polyarchy (20TH CENTURY)

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