Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is a Polyarchy?

Dahl introduced the term polyarchy to characterize American politics and other political systems that are open, inclusive, and competitive (Polyarchy, 1971). The concept allowed him to make a distinction between an ideal system of democracy and institutional arrangements that approximate this ideal. Thus, polyarchies are based on the principle of representative rather than direct democracy and therefore constitute a form of minority rule, yet they are also (imperfectly) democratized systems that limit the power of elite groups through institutions such as regular and free elections.

Despite his critique of elite-power theory, Dahl was faulted after the publication of Who Governs? for underestimating the importance of broad-based civic participation. Indeed, in Who Governs? Dahl had argued that democracy does not require mass participation and in fact rests on the consent of a relatively apathetic population. Later, in Democracy and Its Critics (1989), he recognized the value of an active citizenry and associated polyarchy with political rights such as freedom of expression and association.*

* “Robert A. Dahl.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.

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