Robert Dahl, 1915-2014

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The head of the Yale political science department just sent around an email saying that Robert Dahl has died. He was 98. Dahl was the leading political scientists in the US, and arguably the world, for some 50 years. He made a name for himself in the 1950s by advocating a pluralist interpretation of politics. It is indeed the case, he concluded, that we are ruled by elites, but there is not only one elite group but many, they are powerful within slightly different areas, and they take turns having an influence on political outcomes. Dahl called this system of rule “polyarchy” to distinguish it from the ideal-type of a democracy. His interpretation became enormously influential first of all since there was much empirical evidence for it, but also since it saved West’s image of itself. People in Western countries don’t want to think they are run by elites. We like to think that we live in democracies. Dahl forced us to acknowledge that elites indeed rule us, but he made us feel good again by concluding that there is competition among elites.

I just missed Dahl at Yale. He had finally retired a few year before I got there, and I never got a chance to take classes with him. Still he was very much onsite, regularly showing up in his old office and coming to various seminars and events. “I wrote a book about local politics in New Haven,” he once said in a seminar, referring to Who Governs?. and it suddenly struck me that this was the author of the most famous polisci book of the post-war era. In fact, when I worked for Bruce Russett, managing a journal he was editing, Dahl’s office was right next door. He used to come in and ask me questions about his computer. I tried to help him.  Once I ran into him on York Street and he said “Hi Erik.” I returned a “Hi Bob!” — and I felt really, really cool.

Dahl got his PhD in 1940. His thinking was very much colored by the Depression and by the hardships of American workers. He was one of the very last representatives of American radicalism. Of course, we still have Charles Lindblom. He is only 97.

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