Sep 4, 2019 in Book Review

Dahl’s On Democracy

The term democracy is widely used in the modern political arena, especially where superpowers such as the United States of America intervene in international disputes fostering certainty. In light of this, democracy should be viewed as a way of bringing freedom and enlightenment to a country that has an evidently tyrannical and oppressive regime. It is in this view that people should understand why democracy seems to be valued above other governmental systems, especially when freedom and equality are concerned.

In his book On Democracy which contains fifteen chapters, Robert Dahl explains his views regarding democracy. In essence, he asserts that no modern country has ever met the ideal of democracy. To him, democracy is a theoretical image of a country that has a perfect social and political system. Dahl begins by presenting a brief theoretical and practical history of democracy thereby providing a preliminary definition of this concept as established in Chapter One of the book. However, what stands out is how the conception of ideal democracy is explained in the book. An ideal democracy primarily focuses on political equality and freedom (Dahl 37). It is in this view that this essay provides a summary of the major points outlined in the book and examines the relationship between the concepts of rights and equality and standards, values and practices of political democracies.

One of the main points that Robert Dahl presents in his book is the idea of democracy as originated from the ancient Greeks. In Greek, the term democracy was coined from two words: demos meaning “the people” and kratein implying “to rule” (Dahl 11). Therefore, the term was formerly believed to denote the manner in which many people can and should rule themselves. In Greeks’ understanding, democracy is self-government by the many (Dahl 12). This implies that the idea of self-rule, especially by ordinary people, brings out the understanding that a democratic government should serve the entire nation. In this case, the people themselves should be those who can be relied upon. This means that they have to know and act according to their own values and interests.

While this is the case, Dahl presents quite an interesting view of democracy, which is more of a utopian idea and does not fit the description of the real modern societies. This brings us to Dahl’s criteria of enhancing democratic process. In this case, Dahl establishes effective participation as a way of meeting required criteria of democracy, which was evident during the ancient times. Effective participation means that at any time, citizens must be given adequate and equal opportunities to form their choices and question policies on the public agenda. They should be granted an opportunity to express the reasons they agree or disagree with any devised policy.

The above-mentioned criteria cited as the purest form of democracy were evident in Athens in the fifth century BCE, where all public policies were decided upon by assemblies of Athenian citizens, although women, slaves and immigrants were excluded (Dahl 29). However, the fact that a substantial number of free adult males were allowed to freely participate in the operation of government was a good example of an inclusive form of government. It is this aspect of inclusiveness that Dahl believes a democratic government or nation should be based on.

Another major point set out by Dahl as a criterion for attaining democracy is enhancing equality. This calls for examining the relationship between equality and practices of political democracies. Dahl believes that democracy can be invented and reinvented if appropriate conditions are put in place or do exist. In this regard, people’s participation in government can only be achieved through the concept of rights and equality. Dahl believes that in order to achieve democracy, whenever the final decision about a public policy is to be made, all members of the state must have equal and effective opportunities to vote, with the votes counted as equal (Dahl 142). It is this view of equality that continues to stimulate the creation of democratic societies which allow people to equally participate in the governing of the country.

In the early eighteenth century, new political ideas and practices, which have been important elements of the later democratic beliefs and institutions, appeared in Europe. For instance, in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Britain, the concept of equality that had been favored by local conditions and opportunities had helped in creation of local assemblies that allowed free men to participate in governing of the state (Dahl 22). It implies that such European countries had developed an idea that they needed the consent of the governed, which was acquired through representation. Contrary to Athenian practice, representation was only secured through election. It is such European political ideas and practices that formed the foundation from which democratization could expand.

Similarly, the concept of rights and equality seems to relate well with standards, values and practices of political democracies. According to Dahl, democracy does guarantee citizens a number of fundamental rights as they are an inherent part of the democratic system. In this regard, in order for countries to meet certain standards of democracy such as effective participation, citizens must be given the right not only to participate but also to express their views. While offering this relationship between the concept of right and equality and standards, values, and practices of political democracy, Dahl asserts in his fifth criterion of the democratic process that all citizens must enjoy the citizenship rights and that of legitimacy in full while participating in any political process (Dahl 37). This implies that when an individual is deprived the right to air his or her voice in the government, then his/her interests will most likely not be given attention, unlike the concerns of those who have a voice. In order to acquire enlightened understanding of the possible government actions and policies or even to understand civic competence, it is important to have freedom of expression (Dahl 96). It is this freedom that allows the citizen to practice political democracy.

Consequently, the concept of equality and its relationship with values and practices of political democracy can be understood through discussing people’s constitution rights across time and space. Constitution normally makes difference in matters of democracy in various ways. First, stability in a country or society is usually enhanced by a constitution that provides standards for democratic political institutions (Dahl 127). In so doing, a constitution can effectively protect the fundamental rights of both the majority and minorities while at the same time fostering neutrality among citizens having the same belief.

In conclusion, Robert Dahl’s On Democracy provides a clear understanding of democracy and how it can be achieved through fostering equality and freedom. In this regard, the reason why democracy is valued above other governmental systems is because it establishes rules that help protect every individual’s interests. In order to achieve effective participation as a standard of democracy, constitution must not only be seen as a way of documenting people’s rights, but must also be implemented as a mode of fostering their freedom. Moreover, people must be allowed to freely exercise their freedom.

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