On Democracy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert Dahl is a long-established, prominent political theorist. He is particularly known for his many writings on the theory and practice of democracy. On Democracy, a relatively short book, presents Dahl’s well-honed beliefs about the value and significance of that form of government.

The book begins with a brief history of democracy’s theoretical and practical development. This section provides preliminary definitions for the term “democracy,” as well as related concepts. In general, this section provides a foundation for the slightly more sophisticated discussion of the subsequent sections.

The second section presents Dahl’s conception of “ideal” democracy. Dahl attributes to this ideal several essential criteria, focused largely on political equality and freedom. He goes on to describe a number of advantages to the democratic ideal, and while noting its shortcomings, embraces democracy as the best practicable system of governance.

The third section concerns “actual” democracy, examining various forms of democracy that have developed at different times and places. This section acknowledges that the essential democratic ideal can be pursued through a variety of mechanisms. This discussion is especially helpful for American readers, who may know little about such things as parliaments and proportional representation.

The final section examines the conditions which give rise to, and sustain, democratic government. Here Dahl attempts to explain the development of modern democracies, their expansion in the late twentieth century, and the likely future of this trend in the twenty-first century. Dahl is especially concerned with the relationship between free-market capitalism and democracy. In addition, Dahl notes several other potential threats to modern democracies, including cultural diversity and inadequate civic education.

Though clearly designed to be used as an introductory college text, the book is very readable. General readers with an interest in politics or government should find it thought-provoking.