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On Democracy (Yale Nota Bene) Paperback – 8mm, August 11, 2000

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"Democracy has been discussed off and on for about twenty-five hundred years, enough time to provide a tidy set of ideas about democracy on which everyone, or nearly everyone, could agree. For better or worse, that is not the case."

Freshman poly-sci instructors need fret no longer, however; as an introduction to democratic principles, Robert A. Dahl's On Democracy is rather tidy, indeed. Dahl, an emeritus professor of political science at Yale, covers questions like "Where and how did democracy develop?" in accessible--almost chatty--prose, often taking the time to say a few "words about words," in which he examines, for example, the historical connotations of "democracy" and "republic" (it turns out that until James Madison declared there was a political distinction to be made, the only difference between the two was their etymological roots). Experienced readers may find their eyes glazing over at pronouncements such as "Democratic institutions are less likely to develop in a country subject to intervention by another country hostile to democracy in that country," but if you're looking for a comprehensive yet brief overview of how democracy works, On Democracy fits the bill. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

What is really meant by the term "democracy"? How did democracy come about? What characteristics must a polity possess in order to be properly dubbed democratic? What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy? What are some challenges facing democracies in the 21st century? In this thorough but concise handbook by one of America's foremost political scientists, Yale professor Dahl (Democracy and Its Critics) answers these and other questions. The book is a highly structured work organized around subtopics on the origins of democracy, the democratic idea, actual democracies and conditions that favor or impede the development of democracy. Dahl discusses the tension between citizen participation and system effectiveness, the relative strengths and weaknesses of presidential versus parliamentary systems. Some of the best sections address the tension that exists in societies (e.g., the U.S.) where a democratic system based on political equality coexists with market capitalism, which yields economic inequality. Especially helpful are short "words about words" segments in which Dahl defines and clarifies terminology that is often used imprecisely (e.g., republic, representative, plurality system, etc.). Dahl's primary concern is the intersection between theory and practice, but his work is peppered with historical references to such advocates and critics of democracy as Plato, John Stuart Mill and James Madison. Dahl nimbly sketches the various issues and neatly frames controversies for the reader. His accessible style makes this an excellent introduction for novices, as well as a trusty handbook for experts and political science mavens.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Nota Bene
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (August 11, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300084552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300084559
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,939 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I read this as a precursor to reading other works regarding the challenges facing democracies. Dahl's book is written for the general reader, the beginner, someone unfamiliar with the subject, or a student who has been away from the subject for a while and wants a broad, relatively easy reading survey of the topics and issues facing democracies. It is written not for the scholar but for the informed lay person. It goes down easily in several metro commutes and even worked as bed time reading. It is also a nice calm look at issues that can become very heated in the press and media. A several page mention of the uniqueness of India, the world's most populous democracy, has also triggered my latent interest in following up on that topic as well.
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Format: Hardcover
Tremendous breadth and perspective on the major political dilemmas of our time from a wise scholar of the academy and citizen of the world. Everyone from experts to laypersons can enjoy, understand, and gain from Dahl's insights and characterizations regarding the fundamental political dilemmas of our time. Rarely, does such a combination of scholarly erudition and simple prose ever come along. I am greatful to Robert Dahl for contributing and elevating political discourse here and around the world with this book. Please read it if you are remotely interested in the politics of any country and the politics of the world. You can probably read it in one long sitting.
On another level, this book will forever remain the textual staple of the "Introduction to Comparative Government Courses" I teach.
This review does not mean that I agree with Dahl on all his positions it just means that I think his book is important.
This book is a provocative, informative, prudent, understated, and insightful explanation of the world's post-Soviet political era. (In this respect, Dahl's book is much better than Francis Fukuyama's ridiculously overstated, criminially impractical, triumphantly-and-arrogantly-toned treatise on "the end of the history." And guess what? Dahl's book is much shorter.)
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By Urobolos on April 29, 2006
Format: Paperback
Given that Professor Dahl has written numerous books on democracy and is considered an expert in the field, "On Democracy" is surprisingly uninteresting. The book covers various aspects of democracy (history, preconditions, systems of government, elections, and its relationship to capitalism) superficially. With the exception of a few (very occasional) facts, the book provides little beyond what an educated person with an interest in democracy (e.g., college and reads the newspaper) already knows.

Part of the problem is the writing: it is meandering, thus the book's 200 pages are not enough to go into any issue in depth. Part of the problem is a lack of focus, for example, Dahl spends several pages trying to show that assembly based democracy is not practical for large populations (which should be obvious), while not a single page on how democracies in practice assess the opinions of large populations (e.g., polling, districting, etc.).

A deeper problem may simply be that Dahl is a political "scientist". Law and economics seem to have long since stripped polisci of logic and empiricism, both of which are missing here.

Why two stars (instead of one)? The book is well organized and does provide a framework for thinking about democracy; Dahl just never develops it.
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Format: Paperback
The most concise, logical and authoritative text "On Democracy." If you are confused about democracy in theory and/or practice, this book can help you out!
I really liked the way Dahl describes the origins of democratic thought and practices, the necessary conditions for an ideal democracy, the necessary institutions for an actual democracy, pro's and con's of parliamentary and presidential democracies and finally of increasing relevance, the double-edge sworded relationship between market capitalism and democracy.
It's the perfect guide to bring together and give shape to your existing and confused ideas. The only criticism I can offer about the text is its obvious Western bias. Even though modern representative democracy was no doubt shaped in Europe and North America, the author either intentionally or out of ignorance did not give credit and/or mention to the existence of ancient democratic practices in the villages of India and other indigenous peoples of the world.
Nevertheless, a fantastic, though rather dry read. It's money well spent.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Robert Dahl is one of the most respected figures in the study of politics. He has authored some of the most important works in political science, such as "Who Governs?" This little volume is meant as an accessible work that informed nonacademics can profit by reading. In that endeavor, he is pretty successful.

This volume explores a number of key issues: the origins and development of democracy, the nature of ideal democracy, the nature of actual democracies in practice, and conditions that are more favorable or unfavorable to nurturance of democracy.

The book begins with a very nice history of democracy. He begins with the Mediterranean region, with classical Greece, the Roman Republic, and Italian city-states after 1100 AD. He also considers other possible exemplars, from local assemblies among the Vikings, regional assemblies in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Of course, he considers the development of Parliament in England, as well.

He moves on, in the next section to inquire about the ideal form of democracy. He sees five criteria for democracy: effective participation, voting equality, enlightened understanding by citizens, access to the agenda of issues available for decision making, and inclusion of all adults. These are, indeed, imposing criteria, and actual democracies do not necessarily meet these ideals.

His believes that the practical (as opposed to ideal) form of democracy is what he calls "polyarchy." It includes characteristics such as: elected officials; free, fair, and frequent elections; freedom of expression; access to alternative sources of information; associational autonomy; inclusive citizenship.
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