Dahl's “On Democracy” essay

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This paper investigates the literature that is available on Dahl’s “On Democracy”. It discusses strengths as well as weaknesses of his arguments concerning democratic ideals. According to the literature, his points on democracy greatly illustrate several ideas that we discussed in class. In addition, the paper presents the challenges that Dahl’s opinions pose to my personal thoughts on democracy.

Robert Dahl is known for his extensive literature on politics and democratic principles. His work “On Democracy” touches on several issues that we discussed in class. 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 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 the national agenda in favor of public interest. Further, this should not be selectively applied along racial or ethnic lines as that would undermine the principle of inclusiveness that is essential for political legitimacy. This pattern should be replicated at all levels of governance, including the actual distribution of natural resources. This shows the absolute nature of democracy and the fact that dictatorship negates all the democratic gains achieved in other aspects of a political system (Ruskin and Medeiros 52).

Western countries only practice an approximation of ideal democracy in Dahl’s opinion. This has been the assertion of Dahl in an attempt to explain what is meant by the idea of actual democracy. According to literature, Dahl associates the Western democracy as well the Athenian democratic system with actual democracy as they provide for a greater degree of social democratic equality. In fact, he concedes that no political system in the world has ever come close to achieving an ideal democratic system and that it may not be easy to achieve it in the future. Nonetheless, I find his generalization of actual democratic systems quite challenging to my own thoughts on democracy. For instance, it is quite ridiculous to compare the United States democracy and the Athenian democracy because the two countries are very different in size and populations. Ideally, the implementation of democracy is dependent on the area of jurisdiction. Thus, it is technically easier to practice actual democracy in the Athenian system that practicing it in the United States. In my opinion, this effectively elevates the United States democracy above the Athenian model of democracy. This is the major weakness in his argument (Ruskin and Medeiros 47).

Although his description of modern democracies largely draw from the actual democracy of the West, he gives an insight into how some less democratic democracies influence their citizens. For instance, there is persuasive influence where leaders tend to reason out with their people to behave or think in a certain manner. In this case, the ultimate choice on how to think or behave remains with people and there is never anyone to influence them. According to literature, this is the technique that the West mostly uses on its people in order to get them moving together as one nation. Besides, there is also induced influence that is mostly used by small democracies that are trying to establish themselves. This type of political influence involves giving tips to those who best embrace the democratic ideals. However, this has been abused in the past when a tip became a bribe meant to induce people to act on the behest of the political class. Nonetheless, it can be effectively applied to start up a democratic system where none existed before (Ruskin and Medeiros 10).

Moreover, some modern democracies tend to use coercive influence on people. This can take the form of power threats where individuals are forced to act in certain ways or lose their jobs or certain social privileges. This form is quite prevalent in the developing world where dictatorial governments use democracy to conceal their dictatorial tendencies. In most cases, their rebellion against the Western countries or isolation from the international community forces them to adopt this coercive attitude in order to remain relevant. A typical case is Zimbabwe in Africa where electoral malpractice is encouraged under the pretence of preventing leaders sympathetic to the West from taking over the country’s leadership. However, coercive influence can also be in the form of threats of physical harm if one does not “behave”. Essentially, Dahl succeeds in putting all forms of modern democracies into context. This can be considered the strength of his argument (Ruskin and Medeiros 32).

Essentially, Dahl’s definition of ideal democracy, actual democracy and his scope of modern democracy greatly influenced my thoughts on the subject. Understandably, the idea that the practice of actual democracy is dependent on the size or extent of the area of jurisdiction helps to analyze the success of the Western democracy. This is certainly important in understanding modern democracy. 

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