It's much messier than it looks. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg
It's much messier than it looks. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Robert Dahl, one of the greatest scholars of democracy, has died.

Dahl studied democracy, and then explained democracy, in ways both practical (for example in his classic work on New Haven) and more theoretical.

His A Preface to Democratic Theory is probably one of a very small handful of books that are simply indispensable for anyone who wants to think seriously about democracy in large, modern, nations -- although most would agree that his later works are written in more accessible language.

Here he is on American democracy:

This much may be said of the system. If it is not the very pinnacle of human achievement, a model for the rest of the world to copy or to modify at its peril, as our nationalistic and politically illiterate glorifiers so tiresomely insist, neither, I think, is it so obviously a defective system as some of its critics suggest.
To be sure, reformers with a tidy sense of order dislike it. Foreign observers, even sympathetic ones, are often astonished and confounded by it. Many Americans are frequently dismayed by its paradoxes; indeed, few Americans who look upon our political process attentively can fail, at times, to feel deep frustration and angry resentment with a system that on the surface has so little order and so much chaos.
For it is a remarkable decentralized system. Decisions are made by endless bargaining; perhaps in no other national political system in the world is bargaining so basic a component of the political process. In an age when the efficiencies of hierarchy have been re-emphasized on every continent, no doubt the normal American political system is something of an anomaly, if not, indeed, at times an anachronism…
Yet we should not be too quick in our appraisal, for where its vices stand out, its virtues are concealed to the hasty eye. Luckily the normal system has the virtues of its vices. With all its defects, it does nevertheless provide a high probability that any active and legitimate group will make itself heard effectively at some stage in the process of decision. That is no mean thing in a political system.

Since Dahl wrote that (in Preface, from 1956) the U.S. has become considerably more democratic in some ways – most of all, by ending the thoroughly undemocratic exclusion of African Americans and others, especially in the South, from what Dahl called the “normal” system. It has, in many ways, succumbed to the lure of “the efficiencies of hierarchy” that Dahl described. In other ways, however, American democracy has been remarkably resistant to the advantages, and disadvantages, of hierarchy.

Dahl taught us, perhaps more than any other modern thinker, to understand democracy as a complex and contested process – not as a simple question of whether elections are held in which majorities win and rule, but as a combination of elections, governing processes and social conditions.

I’ll give you a few more references: His popular How Democratic is the American Constitution?; the clear and straightforward On Democracy; and his obscure but wonderful textbook, Pluralist Democracy in the United States.

I’m sure I’ll be linking to several tributes to him over the next few days and beyond. We’ve lost one of the truly greats.

To contact the writer of this article: Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.