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In modern political science, the term Polyarchy (Greek: poly many, arkhe rule)[1] was introduced by Robert A. Dahl, now emeritus professor at Yale University, to describe a form of government in which power is vested in three or more persons. This form of government was first implemented in the United States and was gradually adopted by many other countries. According to Dahl, the fundamental democratic principle is that when it comes to binding collective decisions, each person in a political community is entitled to be given equal consideration to their interests. A polyarchy is a nation-state that has certain procedures that are necessary conditions for following the democratic principle.[2][3] In semblance, the word polycracy describes same form of government, though from a slightly different premise: A polycracy is a state ruled by more than one person, as opposed to monocracy. The word is derived from Greek -- poly which means "many" and kratos which means "rule" or "strength".



Dahl's original theory of Polyarchal Democracy is in his 1956 book, A Preface to Democratic Theory. His theory evolved over the decades, and the description in later writings is somewhat different.


A Preface to Democratic Theory

In this book, Dahl gives eight conditions, which measure the extent to which majority rule is in effect in an organization. These are (p. 84):

  • Every member of the organization performs the acts we assume to constitute an expression of preference among the scheduled alternatives, e.g., voting.
  • In tabulating these expressions (votes), the weight assigned to each individual is identical.
  • The alternative with the greatest number of votes is declared the winning choice.
  • Any member who perceives a set of alternatives, at least one of which he regards as preferable to any of the alternatives presently scheduled, can insert his preferred alternative(s) among those scheduled for voting.
  • All individuals possess identical information about the alternatives.
  • Alternatives (leaders or policies) with the greatest number of votes displace any alternatives (leaders or policies) with fewer votes.
  • The orders of elected officials are executed.
  • Either all interelection decisions are subordinate or executory to those arrived at during the election stage, i.e, elections are in a sense controlling; or new decisions during the interelection period are governed by the preceding seven conditions, operating, however, under rather different institutional circumstances; or both.

Dahl hypothesized that each of these condition can be quantified, and suggested using the term polyarchy to call an organization that scores high on the scales for all the eight conditions.

Democracy and its critics

In his 1989 book, Democracy and its critics, Dahl gives the following characteristics of a polyarchy (p. 233):

  • Control over governmental decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.
  • Elected officials are chosen and peacefully removed in relatively frequent, fair and free elections in which coercion is quite limited.
  • Practically all adults have the right to vote in these elections.
  • Most adults also have the right to run for the public offices for which candidates run in these elections.
  • Citizens have an effectively enforced right to freedom of expression, particularly political expression, including criticism of the officials, the conduct of the government, the prevailing political, economic, and social system, and the dominant ideology.
  • They also have access to alternative sources of information that are not monopolized by the government or any other single group.
  • Finally, they have an effectively enforced right to form and join autonomous associations, including political associations, such as political parties and interest groups, that attempt to influence the government by competing in elections and by other peaceful means.

Dahl's Seven Sets of Conditions for Polyarchy

  1. Historical Sequence- peaceful evolution within an independent nation-state
  2. Socioeconomic Order-concentration- a competitive regime cannot be maintained in a country where military forces are accustomed to intervening
  3. Socioeconomic Order-level of development
    1. Provide literacy, education, communication
    2. Create a pluralistic social order
    3. Prevent Inequalities
  4. Equalities and Inequalities
    1. Hegemonic regimes reduce public contestation
    2. Inequalities increase the chance comparative politics will displace hegemony
  5. Subcultures, Cleavage Patterns and, Governmental Effectiveness
  6. The Beliefs of Political Activists- treat them as major independent variables
  7. Foreign Control- foreign domination can affect all the conditions and alter available options


Polyarchy and its procedures by itself may be insufficient for achieving full democracy. For example, poor people may be unable to participate in the political process.[3]

Moreover, perceived polyarchies -such as the United States- may bar a substantial amount of its citizens from participating in its national electoral process. For example, more than four million U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. territories (such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are excluded from participating in the election of any voting-member of Congress, which are the political bodies that hold ultimate sovereignty over them.[4][5]

When, in the 1940s, Joseph Schumpeter argued that ordinary citizens should limit their participation in a democracy to electing its leaders, he was effectively arguing for polyarchy. This contrasts with the view presented in the eighteenth century by Rousseau, that the health of a polity depended on active citizen involvement in all aspects of governance. According to Schumpeter, massive political participation is regarded as undesirable and even dangerous. Schumpeter thought that the electoral masses are incapable of political participation other than voting for their leaders. He claimed most political issues are so remote from the daily lives of ordinary people, that they can not make sound judgements about opinions, policies and ideologies.

In Preface to Democratic Theory (1956) Dahl argues that an increase in citizen political involvement may not always be beneficial for polyarchy. An increase in the political participation of members of "lower" socioeconomic classes, for example, could reduce the support for the basic norms of polyarchy, because members of those classes are more pre-disposed to be authoritarian-minded.[6] [7]

In a discussion of contemporary British foreign policy, Mark Curtis stated that "Polyarchy is generally what British leaders mean when they speak of promoting 'democracy' abroad. This is a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites." [8]

See also

External links


  • Robert A. Dahl. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-13425-3 (paper).
  • Robert A. Dahl. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. Yale University Press . ISBN 0-300-01565-8 (paper).
  • Seyom Brown. 1988. New Forces, Old Forces, and the Future of World Politics. Glenview, Il.: Scott Foresman.
  • Charles Blattberg. 2003. Shall We Dance? A Patriotic Politics for Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2547-5 (cloth); ISBN 0-7735-2596-3 (paper).
  • James N. Rosenau & Ernst-Otto Czempiel. 1992. Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Robinson, William I., Promoting Polyarchy.
  • Noam Chomsky, America is not a Democracy (video)



  1. ^ polyarchy - Definitions from
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ Raskin, James B. (2003). Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court Vs. the American People. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 36–38. ISBN 0415934397
  5. ^ Torruella, Juan R. (1985). The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal.
  6. ^ Dahl, Preface to Democratic Theory, p. 89
  7. ^ "Citizen participation and democracy in the Netherlands", by Ank Michels (referenced 26 September 2006)
  8. ^ Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World, p. 247, London: Vintage UK Random House. ISBN 0-09-944839-4
  9. ^ "Noam Chomsky, America is not a Democracy"


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