I believe it was 2003. Robert Dahl sitting behind a long table on an uncomfortable plastic chair, as part of a round table discussion at Harvard University, and me, a postdoc at Harvard, squeezed into the second row as a member of the large audience. The room was warm and stuffy, although I am pretty sure it was winter. Funny, I don’t recall the precise date and the topic of the round table, but the memory of this day is still very vivid. Dahl was impressive in a calm way, thoughtful and thoroughly committed to the study of democracy. I knew he was born in 1915, but later at home I checked this several times, as I simply couldn’t believe it. After the event, I had the honour to talk with him and that was simply wonderful and inspiring. Later, after my first book came out, one of the book reviewers stated in 2006 that my book ‘is fit to sit on bookshelves next to such classics as Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy (1971)’. This sentence still makes me happy and humble at the same time.
In 1961, Dahl published his book Who Governs? which used the city of New Haven as a case study to analyse patterns of power structures in governance. In my teaching of comparative politics, I always mention this book as an example of a very valuable case study. Later, Dahl turned his focus from American politics to comparative politics research and democratic theory. I often use his more recent books in both teaching and research, as they still have a fundamental influence on academic efforts to conceptualize and measure democracy. In Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Dahl looked at the most basic assumptions of democratic theory, evaluated them against the questions raised by its critics, and discussed the directions in which democracy must move to ensure its existence in the future. In his last book On Political Equality (2006), Dahl focused on equality and how and why democratic governments gave fallen short of their ideals.
Dahl was a great scholar, a giant in political science and very much a generalist, never afraid to ask the big questions about power and politics.
For about 50 years it has been almost impossible to write about democracy without citing Robert Dahl. When I was doing my MA at the University of Auckland, Dahl was so pervasive it became a standard conference game: see how many references to R. Dahl we could insert in our papers without anyone noticing that it was Roald, not Robert, who was getting the credit. I was delighted recently to discover that game still being played. What that says about political scientists’ sense of humour is probably a bit sad; what it says about the breadth and longevity of Robert Dahl’s influence is more than a little humbling.
While scholarly judgements are gradually being less and less kind to Dahl’s pluralism and his analysis of power, his wider democratic theory remains important. He understood democracy not just as a set of principles but as a set of practices, and these practices – engaging, lobbying, voting, arguing, bargaining, representing, performing – informed his principles. This makes his work something of a model for me: he was a clear, articulate advocate of democratic ideals that were tested in practice. This made it hard for critics of democracy to evade his criticisms: they could not dismiss him for either wide-eyed optimism or, on the contrary, impoverished vision.
For the last 25 years democratic theory has been dominated by deliberative normative ideals, and for some time it has been easy to accuse democracy theorists of naivety, of excessive optimism about the power of reason. That literature is gradually swinging back to more real-world concerns, concerns not a million miles away from Dahl’s own views about democratic societies. I am looking forward to picking up Democracy and its Critics and reading it with new eyes.
In one of the classes I took during my MSc at Strathclyde in 1968-69, we spent a lot of time examining the ‘community power’ debate which was central to political science. The principal exponent of the elitist model was Floyd Hunter, who had studied in Atlanta, and on the other side was Robert Dahl, who had studied New Haven, the home of Yale University. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Atlanta was elitist and New Haven more pluralist, but Dahl’s Who Governs? was seen as a classic study of how American politics worked in practice at a time when empirical studies were much rarer than they are today. Dahl was also an exponent of the view that we did not have democracy but polyarchy – the ability to choose from time to time between alternative teams of leaders. Dahl also trained graduate students who became leaders in the profession, for example, Nelson Polsby, who also became a president of the American Political Science Association. I only saw Dahl speak once, later in his life, but he still exemplified the liberal east coast professor of a particular generation. Political science has become fragmented since then and we don’t have giant figures that tackled big issues in the way that Dahl did. One exception is Warwick politics graduate Pippa Norris, who also held office in the students’ union.