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date: 26 March 2017

Abstract and Keywords

Democracy can be understood as a mechanism for making decisions and as an ideal of social life. The defense of “polyarchy” that Robert Dahl provides in A Preface to Democratic Theory takes a negative position on both dimensions. It is not concerned with enabling “the people” to decide political outcomes, but rather with ensuring that no one has unchecked decision-making power. Nor is it concerned with developing people’s capacities to the fullest, but rather with harnessing their competitive energies so that no one can impose their will unilaterally on the whole. Ironically, the moral underpinnings of this approach lie in the Madisonian system that Dahl rejects. Like Madison, Dahl focuses on the republican aim of preventing the arbitrary exercise of power rather than the democratic aim of securing popular control over elected officials. Unlike Madison, Dahl argues that the success of this project depends on social rather than constitutional factors.

Keywords: A Preface to Democratic Theory, Robert Dahl, James Madison, democracy, polyarchy, republicanism, arbitrary power

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