Robert Dahl died this week at the age of 98. The man loomed over political theory before, during, and after my years as a political scientist. When I began reading political science, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City was the book to cope with. When I was teaching undergraduates in the tumultuous 1970s, it was After the Revolution? Authority in a Good Society. In 2007, long after I had retired, he wrote On Political Equality, which I will need to read now because it turns out that at the end of his life, he was writing about things I still care about.
I always liked Robert Dahl. He approached his work the way a craftsman does. He seemed always to be drawing on a considerable breadth of social experience. I never read a line until today about how many different things he had done, but now that I know about some of them, I can imagine it was those experiences that kept him from formulating narrow brittle questions, the way so many of his colleagues did. The obituary in the New York Times (here) says that he “worked on the railroad and as a longshoreman during the summers and became a socialist and union advocate. The experience helped inspire him to study the effects of political power on average people.”
It also says that “after earning his Ph.D., he worked for the Agriculture Department and two agencies handling wartime industrial production. He then relinquished his draft deferment and joined the Army as an infantryman. He fought in Europe and earned the Bronze Star with oak cluster. After the war ended, he was assigned to an Army unit charged with “de-Nazifying” the German banking system.”
Railroad worker, longshoreman, socialist, union advocate, bureaucrat, infantryman, international bank reformer. Yeah, I can see why the way he formulated questions never seemed narrow and brittle.
The Political Science Department at the University of Oregon was politically radical when I was there. Joe Allman, my dissertation adviser used to say that he used to be liberal and then the cops beat him up at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 and that helped him reconsider whether liberalism was really going to do the job. Dan Goldrich, with whom I worked closely during my time at Oregon, was so unimpressed by Dahl’s best known work—Who Governs?—that he and two colleagues spent quite a few years and burned through several cohorts of grad students writing an alternative methodology called The Rulers and the Ruled: Political Power and Impotence in American Communities. Not surprisingly, it came to different conclusions as well.
Saying nasty things about Robert Dahl was one of the major activities of graduate students during the time I was there. I never objected to critiques of his methodology or to differences with his conclusions, but during my years at Oregon, I heard his word referred to as “political pornography.” It was the 1970s and a lot of intemperate things were being said, but that one always seemed to me out of bounds.
After the Revolution? For some reason it made my students at Westminster College angry too. Actually, I think he was trying to make students angry with that one. Dahl disposed of the revolution that was being called for during that decade—this was the “bring the mother down” revolution—by beginning his book with the premise that the revolution was over and that it had succeeded in a thorough and orderly transfer of power. “Now what?” he asked. It turns out that “Now what?” was not a question being asked by the radicals, many of them students, who were active in “the movement.” Dahl’s point was that all the difficulties of maintaining an open polyarchy (his term for a government of overlapping and distinct elites) would be in your in-box on the first work day after the revolution and that some thought needed to be given to how to proceed. As I said, it made students angry, but I think he really wanted it to.
I don’t know anything Amazon doesn’t know about his recent work, except that I am going to buy it and read it. Here’s what a reviewer says about it:
“In conclusion, Dahl assesses the contemporary political landscape in the United States. He looks at the likelihood of political inequality 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.”
I find it hard to believe that “competitive consumerism” is going to work, but it does sound like Dahl and it sounds attractive to me. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that the extremes of inequality we have reached in the United States have been troubling me. See this link to a January post I wrote complaining about it.
I’ll miss Robert Dahl. I haven’t kept up with what he was writing toward the end of his life, but I am quite sure that it was organized around interesting questions and that it was written in a gentle and attractive prose. He was a huge part of my whole professional life and his death has got me thinking about it.
 Here is my laugh for the day. Amazon lists this book with two titles—one containing a typo. The mistaken title is The Rules and the Ruled, instead of The Rulers and the Ruled. The mistaken title is actually what I studied at Oregon. Dan was very much in the “rulers and the ruled” camp, but he set that aside to help me with the very different work I was trying to do. I’ll send this to Dan when I finish it. He’ll get a kick out of it.
 You can get a little peek at what that was like in Robert Redford’s movie, The Company You Keep. Redford plays the part of a radical who got out of the movement and lived in genteel obscurity for decades until he was named and located by a former member of his group. Then, “the company you keep” became his problem and the plot of the rest of the movie.