Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Review of on Political Equality by Robert A. Dahl

Academic journal article Review of Constitutional Studies

Review of on Political Equality by Robert A. Dahl

Article excerpt

On Political Equality by Robert A. Dahl (New Haven, CT: Yale

University Press, 2006), 160 pp.

On Political Equality is a meditation on the themes that have concerned Robert Dahl throughout his academic work. In this short book, Dahl pauses to reflect on how his broader democratic theory speaks to the current moment in the political and cultural history of the United States. Dahl asks: "Is the goal of political equality so far beyond our human limits that we should seek more easily attainable ends and ideals? Or are there changes within our limited human reach that would greatly reduce the gap between the ideal and our present reality?" (1)

In the first part of the book, Dahl outlines some general insights into the nature of political equality, drawing on his past work in democratic theory. (2) Dahl's approach to political equality is based on a core ethical assumption about the inherent moral equality of all human beings. (3) He concludes that political equality can only be achieved in the context of a democratic political system. (4) In the analysis that follows in the rest of the book, Dahl measures the strength of political equality in a given society, with reference to the degree to which that society's political system approaches democratic ideals. Following this overview of democratic political institutions and their connection to political equality, he proceeds to the questions that form the heart of the book. In essence, Dahl seeks to measure the feasibility of political equality as a goal in current Western societies. (5)

Dahl begins by conceding the major gaps between the "rhetoric and reality of political equality." (6) By reviewing the histories of "democratic" countries such the United States and the United Kingdom, he points to evidence of significant political inequality such as suffrage limited by race and sex. Dahl also notes the violent histories of slavery and colonialism that informed the establishment of democratic institutions in the United States. (7)

However, in spite of these historical gaps between the rhetoric of equality and social realities, Dahl stresses that there has nevertheless been significant movement towards political equality in these societies. In the face of extensive inequality and the superior resources of the privileged, important advances in political equality have occurred. Dahl asserts that in order to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand what motivates people, both privileged and unprivileged, to make demands in favour of political equality. (8) Dahl asks: "what drives people to act in ways that will help to bring about changes that will actually enhance political equality? Reason? Egoism? Altruism? Compassion? Empathy? Envy? Anger? Hatred? Any or all of these?" (9)

Dahl uses the idea of motivation to explain how social change has occurred in the past. Perhaps even more importantly, he maintains that we need to understand what motivates actions towards equality so that we can better identify the conditions under which equality might flourish. Dahl stresses a pragmatic need to link moral obligations to the actual conditions and tendencies of human beings, in order to make moral and political goals relevant and attainable. (10)

Reason and Reasons Why

In addressing why people in unequal societies might take actions that lead to greater political equality, Dahl rejects the views of democratic and moral theorists who focus purely on human capacity for reason. Dahl argues that these theorists, including Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, fail to account for the motivating force of emotions in generating human actions. (11) He believes that we cannot understand why people struggle against resistance (or against their own self interest) to work towards equality unless we understand human emotions. The goal of political equality may be justified by reason, but this does not explain why people actually take action to achieve it. …

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