Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
On Political Equality

On Political Equality

ROBERT A. DAHL
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npjxz
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On Political Equality
    Book Description:

    Robert A. Dahl, one of the world's most influential and respected political scientists, has spent a lifetime exploring the institutions and practices of democracy in such landmark books asWho Governs?,On Democracy, andHow Democratic Is the American Constitution?Here, Dahl looks at the fundamental issue of equality and how and why governments have fallen short of their democratic ideals.

    At the center of the book is the question of whether the goal of political equality is so far beyond our human limits that it should be abandoned in favor of more attainable ends, or if there are ways to realistically address and reduce inequities. Though complete equality is unattainable, Dahl argues that strides toward that ideal are both desirable and feasible. He shows the remarkable shift in recent centuries toward democracy and political equality the world over. He explores the growth of democratic institutions, the expansion of citizenship, and the various obstacles that stand in the way of gains in political equality. Dahl also looks at the motives, particularly those of emotion and reason, that play such a crucial role in the struggle for equality.

    In conclusion, Dahl assesses the contemporary political landscape in the United States. He looks at the likelihood of politicalinequality increasing, and poses one scenario in which Americans grow more unequal in their influence over their government. The counter scenario foresees a cultural shift in which citizens, rejecting what Dahl calls "competitive consumerism," invest time and energy in civic action and work to reduce the inequality that now exists among Americans.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13374-5
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    Throughout much of recorded history, an assertion that adult human beings are entitled to be treated as political equals would have been widely viewed by many as self-evident nonsense, and by rulers as a dangerous and subversive claim that they must suppress.

    The expansion of democratic ideas and beliefs since the eighteenth century has all but converted that subversive claim into a commonplace—so much so that authoritarian rulers who wholly reject the claim in practice may publicly embrace it in their ideological pronouncements.

    Yet even in democratic countries, as any citizen who carefully observes political realities can conclude, the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Is Political Equality a Reasonable Goal?
    (pp. 4-29)

    If we make two assumptions, each of which hard to reject in reasonable and open public discourse, the case for political equality and democracy becomes extraordinarily powerful. The first is the moral judgment that all human beings are of equal intrinsic worth, that no person is intrinsically superior to another, and that the good or interests of each person must be given equal consideration.¹ Let me call this the assumption of intrinsic equality.

    Even if we accept this moral judgment, the deeply troublesome question immediately arises: who or what group is best qualified to decide what the good or interests...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Is Political Equality Achievable?
    (pp. 30-36)

    Let’s assume that my sketch of political movements leading to greater political equality is roughly correct. It still leaves open a crucial question: what actuallydrivessome persons in the privileged and subordinate strata to insist on greater political equality? Why do the subordinates Downstairs claim that they should be treated aspoliticalequals of the privileged Upstairs who rule over them? Are there aspects of “human nature” or human capacities that can be and sometimes have been evoked to drive people to make such demands? If we assume that political equality is an end or goal that is justifiable...

  8. CHAPTER 4 A Respectable Role for Emotions
    (pp. 37-49)

    As I have already suggested, the motivations that drive people to change the status quo in order to achieve greater political equality—fighting for civil rights and the extension of the suffrage, for example—appear to cover a wide range, from altruism, compassion, empathy, and sympathy to envy, anger, indignation, and hatred.

    An interesting experiment with capuchin monkeys offers an intriguing hint. I say “hint” because I want to avoid the kind of simplistic and reductionist argument that leaps from animal behavior, or in even more extreme cases, from genes and chromosomes, to complex human behavior and institutions.¹ But the...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Political Equality, Human Nature, and Society
    (pp. 50-76)

    The obstacles to political equality have always and everywhere been formidable. Indeed, they are so daunting that even when the basic human drives we explored in the last chapter are mobilized under relatively favorable historical conditions, the extent to which the goal is actually achieved is bound to be rather limited. A gain that is enormous from a historical perspective may seem modest when measured against ideal standards.

    In this chapter I want to describe some fundamental obstacles that have held us below a threshold that we have not yet been able to cross even in democratic countries. The barriers...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Will Political Inequality Increase in the United States?
    (pp. 77-97)

    The future of political equality in democratic countries seems fraught with uncertainty.

    Consider some possibilities. Perhaps the already existing levels of political equality and inequality will remain pretty much unchanged. Perhaps political inequalities will be reduced further and political equality will increase to a level closer to the ideal. Or perhaps the goal of political equality will become even more distant as the barriers to it continue to grow more difficult to overcome. A complex but not unrealistic possibility is that movement will occur in both directions: some barriers will be lowered while some will be raised, and the overall...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Why Political Inequality May Decline
    (pp. 98-120)

    Although something along the lines of the pessimistic scenario I have sketched in the last chapter seems to me rather likely, for several reasons I would urge us not to assume that this future is inevitable.

    First, the extraordinary changes toward political equality over the past several centuries that I mentioned in Chapter 3—not to mention a vast panoply of other changes—counsel us to keep our minds open about future possibilities. How many persons alive in 1700—or, for that matter, in 1800 or 1900—would have foreseen the magnitude of the movement toward greater political equality that...

  12. APPENDIX: DEFINITION OF POLYARCHY SCORES
    (pp. 121-122)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 123-130)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 131-142)