Robert Alan Dahl

Professor Robert Alan Dahl is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science and the Senior Research Scientist in Sociology in Yale University.

Major works of Robert Dahl

– Congress and Foreign Policy
– Politics, Economics and Welfare (with C.E. Lindblom)
– A Preface to Democratic Theory
– Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City
– After the Revolution?
– Polyarchy
– Size and Democracy (with E.R. Tufte)
– Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy
– A Preface to Economic Democracy
– Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy Versus Guardianship
– Democracy and Its Critics
– Toward Democracy: A Journey; On Democracy
– How Democratic is the American Constitution?


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement 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, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.[7]

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).[8][9]

In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) Dahl argued that the US 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.”[10]

Influence terms

One of his 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 a doctor convincing a patient 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, like bribery.
  4. Power threatens severe punishment, such as jail or loss of a job.
  5. Coercion is power with no way out.
  6. Physical force is backing up coercion with use or threat of bodily harm.

Thus, the governments that use influence at the higher end of the scale are best. The worst use the unpleasant forms of influence at the lower end.[citation needed]

Democracy and polyarchies

In his book, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl clarifies his view about democracy. No modern country meets the ideal of democracy, which is as a theoretical utopia.[11] To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria:[12]

  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 judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments 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.[13]


Dahl was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1995.[6]


Sociologist G. William Domhoff strongly disagrees with Dahl’s view of power in New Haven, CT in the 1960s.[14]


The best known of Dahl’s works include:

  • Dahl, Robert A.; Lindblom, Charles E. (1953). Politics, Economics, and Welfare.
  • Dahl, Robert (2006) [1956]. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-13434-5.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). “The Concept of Power.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 2(3), 201–215.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1957). “Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker.” Journal of Public Law 6: 279–295.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1960). Social science research on business: product and potential.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1961). Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1963). Modern Political Analysis.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1966). Political oppositions in Western Democracies.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1968). Pluralist democracy in the United States: conflict and consent.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1970). After the Revolution?: Authority in a good society.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1971). Polyarchy: participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-01565-2.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Tufte, Edward R. (1973). Size and Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1983). Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (December 1984). “Polyarchy, pluralism, and scale”. Scandinavian Political Studies7 (4): 225–240. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.1984.tb00304.x. Full text.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). A Preface to Economic Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1985). Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1997). Toward Democracy – a Journey: Reflections, 1940–1997.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (1998). On Democracy.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2002). How Democratic Is the American Constitution?.
  • Dahl, Robert A.; Shapiro, Ian; Cheibub, José Antonio, eds. (2003). The Democracy Sourcebook.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). After The Gold Rush.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2005). What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require?. Political Science Quarterly 120:2, pp. 187–197.
  • Dahl, Robert A. (2006). On Political Equality.

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