Robert Dahl: Scholar, teacher, democrat and mensch

February 11

This reflection on the life and work of Robert A. Dahl is by Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University. Erik Voeten. 

Robert Dahl (Yale University)
Robert Dahl (Yale University)

Political scientists are mourning and celebrating the life of Robert Dahl, who died last week at age 98 after a lifetime of civic and political activity, transformative scholarship, influential teaching, and an overall level of integrity and decency that few people – perhaps especially, few scholars – can match.  I was his student and later, I hope, his friend so I cannot pretend to any objectivity. But the level of respect and even love that I have seen on e-mail lists and other informal media shows that others share my personal appreciation. And the fact that major newspapers and the AP published extensive and careful obituaries shows that non-scholars share our intellectual appreciation.  As well as exemplifying the democratic citizen, Bob Dahl did more than perhaps any other writer in the last half of the 20th century to shape debates over what democracy is and should be.

Dahl’s unusual history before joining the Political Science Department of Yale University may have informed both his insistence that one must study politics as it actually occurs and his passion for equality and activism. He was born in Iowa, and spent most of his adolescence in the tiny town of Skagway, Alaska, where his father was the only doctor for perhaps hundreds of miles around.  The younger Dahl worked as a longshoreman and on the railroad, and became a socialist and union organizer.  I am proud to report that I am one of the few political scientists in the world (the only one?) who has been to Skagway (population 920 in 2010) — and a small indicator of Dahl’s personality is the fact that he went out of his way to talk with my parents about the town when they visited me at Yale.

After giving up a draft deferment granted for his work on wartime industrial production, he joined the infantry during World War II, winning promotion on the battlefield and a Bronze Star with oak cluster.

Having received his Ph.D. from Yale before the war, he returned there as a faculty member in 1946 and never left.  A steady stream of books, articles, and departmental and university service ensued over the next half-century and more; he published On Political Equality in 2007 at age 92.  His body of work influenced me and most others of my generation of political scientists so deeply that it is hard to sort out just where his originality and Impact lay; we breathe his air.  But let me try to be more precise.

Three features of Dahl’s work stand out the most. The first is analytic; he taught us how to think about what is required for a political system to be democratic, different ways in which a society might organize itself and still be plausibly democratic, and how the components of a democracy work together or stymie one another.  A democratic political system might follow James Madison’s logic, in which powerful groups and institutions offset one another so that no one faction gets too much power and so that it is really hard to get anything done (the high school civics notion of checks and balances, or “ambition countering ambition” in Madison’s words).  Alternatively, a democratic political system might be more populist, making it easier for majorities to get their way but possibly threatening the rights or interests of minorities.  Or, in the definition that Dahl prefers, genuine democracy lies in the social arrangements and norms of a society that enable all people to participate and all groups and ideas to compete freely and fairly.  Eventually he declined to call any existing political system a democracy, substituting the term polyarchy, since in real life no society has a sufficient level of genuine participation and effective contestation.

That point implies the second crucial argument in Dahl’s research and teaching: the necessity of carefully studying what is actually happening in governance, whether of a city or a nation, in order to determine how democratic it is or isn’t.  If that seems self-evident to you, it is because you and others have been influenced by Dahl’s writing.  Before his most famous book, Who Governs?, was published, a lot of scholarship on democracy focused on constitutional structures, laws and formal procedures, theories about class domination, or sweeping claims about the way the world works. As a case study of actual governance, Dahl and his students studied the small city of New Haven,  immersing themselves in the minutiae of how a mayor and his associates govern a city: Who gets to choose the next candidate? Who gets to decide where the housing project will be built?  What does the school board do?  How does a leader acquire or lose influence?  Power, in this view, does not exist unless one can see “A getting B to do something that B would not otherwise do” – none of this airy nonsense about penumbras, potential influence, unspoken control, or mental domination.

I teach Who Governs? as the first book in my favorite course, on “Power in American Society.” The smart and assertive students love to tear into it, showing how it is naïve, incomplete, outdated, complacent.  But the careful readers among them come to see that Dahl anticipated most of their objections and answered them, and they discover how difficult it is to refute his core arguments that a reasonably well functioning political system can give everyone the opportunity to have at least a little political impact. Above all, Who Governs? shows what one can do when a powerful analytic theory about the meaning of democracy is unobtrusively melded into a careful, even pedantic-seeming, study of politics on the ground.

Who Governs? does have one major blind spot, which points to the third crucial feature of Dahl’s writing.  Published in 1961, it almost completely missed the racial dynamics of New Haven,  a city that exploded a few years later.  More generally, for too many years Dahl, like most white Americans, was embarrassingly blind to the biggest flaw in American democratic aspirations and practices. (I once gathered all of my courage and asked him why he had not included the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution in his short list of crucial turning points in American political history; he answered that he had simply been wrong and wished that he could rewrite chapters or articles.)

Nonetheless, Dahl was a profound egalitarian and reverted to the radicalism of his youth as he grew older.  By the 1980s, while a majority of Americans were moving to the political and economic right, Dahl became more and more insistent that without much greater material equality, political equality was impossible.  He even insisted on the necessity of workers’ ownership or control of large firms.  In his words: “if  democracy was justified in governing the state, then it must also be justified in governing economic enterprises; and to say that it is not justified in governing economic enterprises is to imply that it is not justified in governing the state.” This was published at the mid-point of the Reagan presidency.

It is not coincidence that Dahl’s final articles and books addressed the meaning of equality, the failure of the American Constitution to promote and protect participation and contestation of all citizens, and the need for dramatic rethinking of how to create a true democracy.  And he lived that commitment. Dahl chaired the committee that persuaded Yale to offer one of the first majors in African American Studies.  He took women students completely seriously, at a time when another eminent professor wondered in a public meeting if, given their childhood socialization, female graduate students would turn out to be like the wolf-boy of Avignon “who, after all, never really did learn to speak and think fully.”  He refused to be the guru in our seminars, even though we hung on his every word, and waited with patience and humor for us to stumble our way into insights or dead ends.

As I and so many other students moved through our careers, Dahl was always delighted with our achievements and tactful about our failures.  He was a superb scholar, and an equally superb person; I miss him very much.

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Erik Voeten · February 11