Polyarchy and the democratic ideal

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Graham Smith says that just because perfection in our democratic system is impossible, that's no excuse not to make it better.

Professor Robert Dahl

THE influential theorist Robert Dahl coined the term ‘polyarchy’ to describe modern western states which identify themselves as democracies, suggesting that ‘democracy’ itself is an unachievable utopian notion. In doing so he is not suggesting democracy is not something to strive for, but that polyarchy is the reality and democracy should be the goal, even if it is a goal we are forever striving to achieve.

To quote Wikipedia:
To reach the ideal requires meeting five criteria:

1. Effective participation – Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.
2. Voting equality at the decisive stage – Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others.
3. Enlightened understanding – Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests.
4. Control of the agenda – Demos or people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation.
5. Inclusiveness – Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process.

Instead, he calls politically advanced countries “polyarchies”. Polyarchies have

  • elected officials

  • free and fair elections

  • inclusive suffrage

  • rights to run for office

  • freedom of expression

  • alternative information

  • associational autonomy.

  • Those institutions are a major advance in that they create multiple centers of political power.

The point I want to raise here is what I refer to as the ‘fallacy of perfection’ which is often raised as an objection to republicanism. The line we sometimes get from monarchists is ‘nothing is perfect, so why not accept what we’ve got’. Or perhaps ‘we can make some of the changes you want without getting rid of the monarchy’. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it is abandoning the democratic ideal, it is saying ‘because we can’t be perfect why improve at all?’ We know there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, but we also know that our polyarchy can move much further down the road toward that democratic ideal.

Democracy, in its true form, is an ideal. It is a goal and an aim. Democrats should always strive for it and campaign for it. Polyarchy is where we are, and there are some polyarchies that are better than others. The measure is how close it is to the democratic ideal. In Australia, we have elections every three years for two houses of parliament. That is the extent to which the people have control over our politicians. The state is then geared up to grant unlimited power over the country to those we have elected. Our politicians, our officials and our head of state are almost completely untouchable and unaccountable for most of the time.

Dahl’s distinction is useful in pointing out the obvious: democracy is an idealised view of how a nation should be governed, but being an ideal does not mean it is something we should not strive for. As a polyarchy we are already progressed down the path to the ideal, the job of democrats is to continue that journey.

(This article was published in a slightly different form on the Republic UK website on 27 December, 2012.)  
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