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On Democracy

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Robert Dahl is known for his extensive literature on politics and democratic principles. His work “On Democracy” touches on several issues. For instance, the definition of ideal democracy as a political system that advocates for social and political equity at all levels. In addition, it focuses on the idea of ideal democracy. According to Dahl, the threshold for an ideal democratic society is yet to be met by any country in the world. In order to acquire the ideal sense of democracy, there is a certain set of criteria that he suggests that countries must strive to meet.

For instance, there should be the effective participation of all citizens in matters of public interest. This should include equal access to opportunities and the freedom to willfully pursue social preferences without fear of retribution. In addition, the society must ensure that every voting right is protected regardless of voter’s social status. Ideally, the opposite has been happening even in the self-proclaimed democracies like the United States, where claims of electoral fraud have been made previously.

Moreover, the society must provide all citizens with the equal opportunity to affirm what is best for them and determine the things that would best serve their interests. This should manifest in government’s immediate response to mass demonstrations or political activism that are meant to influence. Early in Dahl’s book, he answers the question “what is democracy?” He has created a list of five criteria that must be met for a country to be recognized as fully democratic. To implement all of these criteria would mean that an ‘ideal’ democracy has been established, but Dahl states that it is not practical to expect a perfect democracy given the realities of the world we live in.

The criteria are:

  1. 1. Equal and effective participation in stating one’s views and preferences in regard to policy
  2. 2. Equal and effective opportunity to vote on policy-making where all votes are counted as equal
  3. 3. Equal and effective opportunity for citizens to learn about alternative policies and their potential consequences
  4. 4. Equal and effective opportunity for each citizen to determine how, and which, policy matters are to be placed on the policy agenda
  5. 5. Equal opportunity for all adult permanent residents of a polity to have full rights to the first four criterion listed above. Dahl compares ancient republics and democracies by pointing out that they are both close to the same in that they are only forms of popular government. The Romans chose the word ‘republic’ and the Greeks chose the word ‘democracy’, although they both had very similar governments. Both lacked elected representatives, popular locally elected governments that answered to a national government, and both were presided over by a minority of people. Finally, most were usually men of some means.

Non-property owners, women, and minorities were not part of the process. In 1956, Dahl created the term “polyarchy”, defining it as rule by the many. He says that he uses the term as a reference to any “democratic government on a large-scale or nation-state or country” and having six criteria. These are:

  1. 1. Elected representatives
  2. 2. Free, fair, and frequent elections
  3. 3. Freedom of expression
  4. 4. Alternative sources of information
  5. 5. Associational autonomy
  6. 6. Inclusive citizenship Dahl then answers the question “why democracy?” Dahl creates a list providing ten advantages to using a democratic government. This list of advantages includes averting tyranny, the institution of essential rights, general freedom, self-determination, moral autonomy, human development, protection of personal interests, political equality, peace-seeking, and prosperity. Dahl argues that democracy is not merely a system of government but is also a system of rights for citizens. This is because of the five criteria necessary for a true democracy are dependent upon on the granting of rights to the citizenry.

To draft a constitution and grant rights to citizens without ensuring that those rights are protected is to create a fake democracy. The issue of “moral autonomy” is another important point that Dahl addresses in laying out the advantages of democracy. With “moral autonomy” he means that citizens in a democracy have a right to make their opinions known in regard to which laws should be enacted. Essentially, citizens choose their own laws, that they must follow.

In order to realize this self-determination of laws, citizens are also provided with the right to negotiate, deliberate, and compromise with these rules as they see fit. While there will be a limited number of unanimous decision about whether a law should be enacted, in a democracy the majority will see their opinions prevail. As opposition to the bank bailouts, of most interest to me while reading the book was the chapter discussing the economic inequalities that result from market-capitalism and how this harms democracy.

In Chapter 13, Dahl said that a modern market economy is required to establish conditions in which a democracy can thrive, in Chapter 14, he laid out some dangers that a market economy can present to democracy. He wrote that market-capitalism could not be self-regulating; however, many businesses effectively provide regulations to politicians in exchange for favorable contributions to their campaign funds or foundations.

Dahl argued that the economic inequality that results from market-capitalism creates another problem – the limitation of democratic potential by the creation of inequality in the distribution of political resources. Financial success in a market-capitalist society very often comes with a high degree of influence over politics, legislation, and even the judiciary. Money gives power and this will be the greatest challenge facing the American democracy in the future.

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