The term polyarchy was introduced into the English language in the seventeenth century as a term meaning “government by many,” but later fell into disuse. Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom revived the term in Politics, Economics, and Welfare (1953) to refer to a process by which non-leaders control leaders. Dahl subsequently revised and developed the concept, defining it in Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971) as a political regime that is “highly inclusive and extensively open to public contestation” (p. 8), and in Democracy and Its Critics (1989) as a regime in which “citizenship is extended to a relatively high proportion of adults, and the rights of citizenship include the opportunity to oppose and vote out the highest officials in government” (p. 220).
The robustness and importance of the concept are derived from three features. First, polyarchy unambiguously refers to really existing modern representative democracies that have universal suffrage. Second, it does so by focusing on two dimensions essential to these regimes, participation and contestation. Third, polyarchy specifies a limited number of institutions that together are necessary and sufficient for its existence.
Polyarchy refers to the form of government found in contemporary democracies, but it is not the same as democracy. Dahl understands democracy to be a regime completely responsive to all its citizens. As such, democracy is an ideal, and polyarchy refers to regimes at considerable distance from the ideal. The institutions of polyarchy are held to be necessary for democracy on a large scale, but not sufficient. Though usually considered a “minimalist” concept of democracy, polyarchy nonetheless constitutes a significant human achievement. No country was a full polyarchy until the 1890s when women gained the right to vote in national elections in New Zealand, and until the 1990s only a minority of the world’s independent countries could qualify as polyarchies.
Polyarchy is a narrower concept than democracy in that it is comprised of just two of the many possible dimensions of democracy: political participation and contestation. Although the expansion of citizen participation in governing has been of great historical importance, in recent years universal suffrage has become widespread and most variation in polyarchy has occurred along the dimension of contestation. Polyarchy does not directly include many other dimensions often associated with democracy, such as the degree or extent of the rule of law, horizontal accountability, or actual government responsiveness to citizens, nor does it specify a level of political rights or civil liberties beyond that required for the effective presence of the institutions (listed below). Polities that qualify as polyarchies due to relatively high levels of competition and participation may vary significantly in other ways related to democracy.
Dahl has described the institutions of polyarchy, with some variation over the years. In On Democracy (1998) he lists them as:
- Elected officials. Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in officials elected by citizens.…
- Free, fair, and frequent elections. Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon.
- Freedom of expression. Citizens have a right to express themselves without danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined.…
- Access to alternative information. Citizens have a right to seek out alternative and independent sources of information.… Moreover, alternative sources of information actually exist that are not under the control of the government or any other single political group.…
- Associational autonomy.… [C]itizens also have a right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.
- Inclusive citizenship. No adult permanently residing in the country and subject to its laws can be denied the rights that are available to others and are necessary to the five political institutions just listed. These include the rights to vote … [and] to run for elective office.… (pp. 85–86)
What is important for polyarchy is that each of these institutions must be effectively present, not merely a set of nominal rights. The degree to which these institutions are effective may be measured and a scale of polyarchy established, although polyarchy is often used dichotomously, with only those polities whose institutions are effective above a certain threshold qualifying as polyarchies.
Some authors have suggested that the list of institutions of polyarchy is incomplete and have proposed additions, while others have sought to provide more concise, accurate, or inclusive operational definitions of contemporary democracy than polyarchy. That most such attempts continue to use the concept of polyarchy as their starting point is testimony to its enduring usefulness.
SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Citizenship; Dahl, Robert Alan; Democracy; Elections; Franchise; Lindblom, Charles Edward; Representation; Representative Agent
Dahl, Robert A. 1956. A Preface to Democratic Theory. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Dahl, Robert A. 1998. On Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dahl, Robert A., and Charles E. Lindblom. 1953. Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes. New York: Harper.
Charles D. Kenney