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The Empirical Theorists of Democracy and Their Critics: A Plague on Both Their Houses

Author(s): Quentin Skinner


Source: Political Theory, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Aug., 1973), pp. 287-306
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/190588
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THE EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF
DEMOCRACY AND THEIR CRITICS:
A Plague on Both Their Houses

QUENTIN SKINNER
Christ's College (Cambridge, England)

NE OF THE MOSTPROMINENTCASUALTIESof the recent


attack on the possibility of a purely empirical and value-neutralpolitical
science has been the so-called "empirical theory of democracy." The
empirical theorists still claim, as Dahl (1956a: 86) puts it, that they are
simply investigating "the actual facts of political life" by means of
"methods, theories and criteria of proof that are acceptable accordingto
the canons, conventions and assumptions of modern empirical science"
(Dahl, 1961a: 767). It has by now become one of the commonplacesof
current political science, however, that their theories have never achieved
-and may never have been intended to achieve-such purely neutral and
scientific results.
This criticism has involved two distinct claims. The first is that even
though the empirical theorists may have investigated the workings of
democratic political systems in a wholly neutralspirit, these inquireshave
nevertheless had "normativeimplications" (Walker, 1966: 391). Some of
the critics have pressed their accusations no further than this point

A UTHOR 'S NOTE: I amiparticularly indebted to John Burrow. Jolrh Dunn and Johnt
Thompson Jbr reading and commren.tingo)t successive drafts of thlisarticle.
Political Theory, Vol. 1 No. 3, August 1973, ? 1973 Sage Publications, Inc.

[287]
[288] POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

(notably, Taylor, 1967). It has recently become usual,however, to make a


further and more dramatic charge. The reason, it is said, why these
purportedly empirical theories have such normative implications is that
they are not genuinelyneutral and scientific at all, since they justify-in an
ideological and specifically in a conservativespirit-the existing workings
of the politicalsystem they have described.
This second charge is often mounted in a somewhat evasiveway. Some
critics merely point out that the empirical theorists are "subject to the
suspicion" of having "based conservatismon a pseudo-scientificfounda-
tion" (Duncan and Lukes, 1963: 170), since their theories seem to run the
danger"of uncritically accepting the values of the going system" (Walker,
1965: 295). But the main charge is that this danger of becoming
"apologistsfor the existing political order" (Walker, 1965: 289) has been
deliberatelyincurred.The empiricaltheorists are seen as the inheritorsof
an obviously normative tradition of Anglo-Americanpolitical thought,
that of "sober,cautious Whigpluralism"(Davis, 1964: 44). Whatthey are
really doing under the guise of "neutralist" reporting, is playing an
"increasinglyideological, non-objective role" (Surkin, 1970: 14) as "the
ideological protagonists for corporate capitalism" (see various attacks
throughoutColfax and Roach, 1971: 25, 29). Their real status is that of
"profoundlyconservative"political theorists(Bay, 1965: 44).
The essence of the charge is thus that the empirical theorists have at
some point made a false and ideological move in the constructionof their
allegedly neutral analysis. It is arguable, however, that this attack has
bypassed ratherthan refuted the empiricaltheorists'claims. It may well be
right to claim (as their critics now tend to put it) that they areemploying
a mistaken paradigm in the conduct of their investigations (see, e.g.,
Somjee, 1971: 464; on the need "to revise the paradigm,"see Wolfe and
Surkin, 1970: 6-7). The fact remains, however, that although the critics
have succeeded in making this belief current, they have not succeeded in
giving any sufficient reason for holding it. The result has merely been to
establish a new type of conventional wisdom within the discipline which
seems, no less than the old, to reflect the employment of a paradigm
which dictates the proper method of approachingthe subject, but is not
itself a product or subject of argument. Hence my aim in the following
analysiswill be to reconsider the argumentsof the critics as well as of the
empirical theorists themselves.On the one hand I shall arguethat the main
charge against the empirical theorists-that their work has the status and
characterof conservativepolitical ideology-can certainly be substantiated.
But on the other hand I shall argue that although the chargehas become
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [289]

commonplace, no critic has yet producedany argumentswhich show how


it can in fact be substantiated.
The critics tend to make their task unduly simple for themselvesin one
of two ways. Either they set out and criticize a generalversion of empirical
theory which it is not clear any individualtheorist would wish to endorse
(the strategy adopted by Davis [1964: 38, n. 6] and by Walker[1965:
285, n. 2])1 or they concentrate on the easiest possible cases, and notably
on the notoriously Panglossiansentiments in the concluding chaptersof
Berelson et al. (1954: ch. 14, 305-323) and of Lipset (1960: 403-417).
(This is the strategyadopted by Bay [1965: 44-45], by Duncan and Lukes
[1963: 169-174], by Maclntyre [1971: 91, and by Taylor [1967:
32-36].) As some of these critics have admitted, however, many of their
stricturessimply do not apply to more sophisticatedexamples of the same
genre. Thus Duncan and Lukes (1963: 163, n. 3) attack some of Dahl's
early work but concede that their criticismsdo not apply to his Preface to
Democratic Theory (Dahl, 1956b). In the same way, Davis' (1964: 38, n.
4) general attack on empirical theory specifically excludes Dahl(1956b),
seeing in it only "an excellent discussion" of the problems posed by
traditional democratic theory. And Benn (1967: 338), too, sees no
element of the ideological in a work such as Dahl (1956b), classifyingit
simply as "a formalanalysis of types of democratictheory."
I shall try to avoid both oversimplificationsby concentratingon one
example of empirical theory and by selecting the acknowledgedclassicof
the genre, Dahl (1956b). Even Bay (1965: 43) concedes that "in the
landscapeof behavioralliteraturethis work does stand out as an impressive
exercise in logical analysis." And Dahl (1956b: 149) himself insists that it
contains a purely "descriptive"theory of democraticgovernment,with no
attempt to determine"whetherit is a desirablesystem of government."So
what I shall do is to set out as briefly as possible the skeleton of Dahl's
argument,and then make two claims about it. First. that it can be shown
to emerge more or less completely unscathed from the critical battery
which has been directed against the work of the empirical theorists as a
school. Second, that its allegedly neutral argument can nevertheless be
shown to include one false and ideological move which gives the work an
inescapablyconservativecharacter.

Dahl (1956b) has three main concerns: to consider (at the start) two
major traditions of democratic political theory: to examine (at the end)
[2901 POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

the relations between these traditions and the "hybrid" system of


government currently operating in the United States; and to synthesize
(the center of the analysis) the varioustraditionsof democratictheorizing
into a statement of the nature of the circumstanceswhich may be said to
constitute a case of "rule by the people" and thus a case of genuinely
democraticgovernment.
It is in the account which the empiricaltheoristshave characteristically
given of the model of a democratic "system" that their critics usually
claim to perceive the ideological and conservativebent of their thought
(see, e.g., Davis, 1964: 42). I turn first, therefore, to examine the
statement of the democratic ideal which Dahl (1956b: 67-71) synthesizes
out of his critical account of the two main traditions of democratic
political thought. The model has two main components. The first
posits a set of eight conditions said to be necessary and sufficient for
saying of any system of governmentthat it is genuinelydemocratic,in that
it secures "popularsovereignty and political equality" and thus consists of
"rule by the people" (Dahl, 1956b: 75; compare Dahl, 1970: 4-5, 59).
Three of these conditions attach to what Dahl calls "the voting period":
every member must be able to "perform the acts" (for example, vote)
which constitute an expression of his preferences,each expressionis then
assigned an equal weight, and the alternative with the most votes wins.
Two more conditions attach to the "pre-votingperiod": any memberwith
a preference not scheduled "can insert his preferredalternative(s)";and
each membermust possess "identical informationabout the alternatives."
Two furtherconditions attach to the "post-votingperiod": the leadersor
policies securing the greatest number of votes displace those with fewer,
and the orders of the elected officials must be carried out. The final
condition relates to the interelection period: all decisions during this
period must be subordinate to those arrivedat duringelection periods, or
else must be governed by the first seven conditions, or both these
conditions must obtain. The other main component of Dahl'smodel states
a set of underlying social conditions that are necessary and perhaps
sufficient to ensure that .the political ideal embodied in these eight
conditions is fulfilled or at least maximized "in the real world." As Dahl
himself summarizes them, there are four such conditions: "consensus"
about these social norms;"social trainingin the norms";"consensusabout
policy alternatives";and "political activity." Taken together, these two
parts of the model are said to constitute a case of "ruleby the people" and
thus a case of genuinely democraticgovernment.
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [2911

II
I now turn to consideration of the nature of the argumentswhich the
critics of empirical theory have advanced in order to establish that this
type of an account of the democratic "system" is conservative and
ideological ratherthan purely descriptiveof "the system."
The main current argument, recently describedas a "new revolutionin
political science," has been summarized as follows: "To confine oneself
exclusively to the description and analysis of facts is to hamper the
understandingof these same facts in their broadest context. As a result
empiricalpolitical science must lend its support to the maintenanceof the
very factual conditions it explores" (Easton, 1969: 1052). The argument,
thus, is that the conservatismof empirical theory resides precisely in the
fact that it is concerned in a neutral and scientific spirit with the
description of the system-when the point is to change it (see, e.g.,
Somjee, 1971: 464, for a paraphraseof Wolfe and Surkin, 1970: 21).
But this argument does not really try, and certainly fails, to establish
the main accusation against the empirical theorists-the accusation that
their allegedly neutral analyses have included the making of a false and
ideological move. This criticism presupposes, on the contrary, that the
empirical theorists have achieved, intentionally, a purely neutral stance,
for it is precisely their success in maintaining this stance which is being
denounced. Empiricaltheorists have found little difficulty in adjustingto
this criticism. It has allowed them to go on insisting that, as Dahl (1967a:
166) recently put it, they have indeed "withdrawn from the task of
evaluatingpolitical systems," while they concede that this may not be an
altogetherdesirablestate of affairs.
There is a second argument,however, which cuts deeper than this, by
purporting to show that the empirical theorists have not merely been
describingdemocraticpolitical systems, but also commending the type of
system they have described, and specifically commending it "as an
efficient and stable system" (Duncan and Lukes, 1963: 168). In this way,
they have "substituted stability and efficiency as the prime goals of
democracy" (Walker, 1965: 289), and in the process have, inevitably,
abandonedpure descriptionand contaminatedit with a set of conservative
political values (for a general discussion of this claim, see Rousseas and
Farganis,1963).
Many empirical theorists have undoubtedly been concerned with the
businessof "maintainingstable and effective democracy"(see Almond and
Verba, 1963: 473) and thus with the attempt to establish "generalizations
[2921 POLITICAL THEORY / AUGUST 1973

about the conditions of stable and effective democraticrule" (Eckstein,


1966: 177) This concern has unquestionably led several of them to
celebrate, in an obviously conservative spirit, the special value of any
stable system capable of maintainingthe "balancebetween responsiveness
and the. power to act" (Milbrath, 1965: 146; see also Eckstein, 1966:
267-268; Lipset, 1960: 30-34). It is much harder,however, to show how
this criticism applies to the type of structure which Dahl (1956b)
describes.All his critics have been able to point to is that, at the end of the
book, after relatinghis ideal of democracyto the Americanexperienceand
disclaiming any wish to determine "whether it is a desirablesystem of
government," he then, as Bay (1965: 43) puts it, "proceeds to do just
that, but vaguely." The referenceis to a single sentence on the last page of
the Preface, where Dahl (1956b: 151) commends "the Americanhybrid"
as "a relatively efficient system for reinforcing agreement,encouraging
moderation, and maintaining social peace." Walker (1966: 391) also
quotes this passage in criticizingDahl;in each case this is the sole evidence
for saying that Dahl's conservatismends up by contaminatinghis allegedly
neutral description.
This second line of attack raises the same two difficulties as the first
argument. It fails to show that any false and ideological move has been
made by Dahl in his description of the democratic system itself. It only
shows that such descriptions may be used in the service of an ideological
position. The empirical theoristsare able simply to accept and to adjustto
this criticism.As Dahl himself concedes, they may not alwayshave tried to
maintain the logical distinction between "empiricalanalysis and expla-
nation," on the one hand, and "normativeanalysis and prescription,"on
the other, and even when they have tried to maintain it, they may not
always have succeeded (Dahl, 1966: 298). But they still insist that, since
empirical findings must be logically distinct from their evaluation, there
must still be a purely empiricalcomponent to their theories, uncontami-
nated by the contingent fact that the findings may sometimes have been
commended as well as merely described. According to Dahl, to refuse to
accept the reality of this distinction is simply "to confuse attempts at
empiricaldescriptionand explanationwith efforts at prescribinghow these
systems ought to operate" (Dahl, 1966: 298).2
Both these lines of attack reflect a willingness on the part of the
empirical theorists and their critics alike to accept a strongly positivist
version of what even Walker(1966: 391) calls the "logical distinction"
between "descriptive and prescriptivestatements" (for another strong
statement, see Burdick, 1959: 137). Since this has left the critics so
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [2931

vulnerable to counter-attack, however, it has seemed a natural move


(which Taylor and Maclntyre have gone on to make) to try to dispose of
this counter-attack by challenging the assumptions underlying it. A third
and much more radicalline of attack has thus developed, based on denying
the possibility of simply presenting "the actual facts" about politicallife.
As Taylor (1967: 42, 57, 48, 27) puts it, the facts will always be classified
and presented in terms of a "framework of explanation" which will
"distribute the onus of argument in a certain way;" the findings of
political science can never be wholly neutral: they will always be presented
in such a way as to "go some way to establishinga particularset of values
and underminingothers" (a point also made by MacIntyre, 1971: 8-10).
Taylor singles out for attack the rathereasy targetsoffered by some of
Harold Lasswell'swork and by Lipset (1960). There is no doubt, however,
that Taylor's argument can be used almost equally well to impugn the
neutrality of at least part of the model set out by Dahl (1956b). The first
part of Dahl's model-the political ideal of democracy-in effect stresses
the role of political bargaining, with each citizen being assignedequal
weight in scheduling his wants and helping to determine the choices to be
made between competing alternatives. By contrast, however, the second
part of the model-stating the set of social conditions necessary for
realizing this ideal-in effect stresses the importance of an underlying
consensus both about the norms of the system and about policy
alternatives. One assumption of Dahl's model is thus that democratic
politics operates in two main dimensions: surface political conflict and
underlying social consensus. To make this assumption is certainly to
classify "the actual facts" in terms of a particularview about what should
count as the important variablesand thus in terms of a particularvision of
political life, which, in turn, presents the political alternativesin such a
way that a normative choice "virtuallymakes itself for us" (Taylor, 1967:
35). According to this view there must be surface political competition to
ensure that the legitimate interest of special groups can be heardand that
the society will not be run simply in the interests of its rulingclass.There
must also be an underlying social consensus, to prevent the kind of
division in the society that might lead to a despotic form of rule. Once
these have been selected as the crucial variableshowever, we do seem
bound to opt for what now looks like a golden mean: a system basedon a
set of "rules of the game" allowing both for the expression of political
conflicts and their containment within the system.
Even this third line of attack seems much less successful, however,
when it is used againsta work such as Dahl (1956b) rather than againstthe
[294] POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

work of Lipset or of the other more sociologically oriented theorists of


democracy.It suggests that a value may be hidden in Dahl's stress on the
need for a high degree of social consensusto underpinhis political ideal of
democracy. But it does nothing to establish that this follows from any
false or. ideological move made by Dahl in the construction of his
argument. Furthermore, Dahl is much less concerned than most of the
sociologists of democracy with the alleged social preconditions of
democratic political systems. As I have indicated, his main concern is to
state the criteria for a genuinely democratic political system itself; and
while Taylor's line of attack serves to suggest that there may be an
ideological element in the description of the linkagebetween the political
ideal and its social basis, it does not serveat all to impugn the neutrality of
Dahl's statement of the political ideal itself (implicitly conceded by
Duncanand Lukes, 1963: 167).
So far I have considered the three main argumentsaimed at establishing
that the so-called empirical theory of democracyis a conservativepolitical
ideology. None of them appears to succeed in impugningthe neutralityof
the democraticideal as it is stated in a work such as Dahl (1956b). Some
critics have in effect conceded this point, however, and have recognized
that a different line of attack needs to be developedif their main chargeis
to be substantiated. The suggestion they have gone on to explore is that
the neutrality of an argument such as Dahl's can be impugnednot in its
statement of the democratic ideal, but ratherin the way the ideal has been
related to existing political practice. It is in the way they have tried "to
make the theory of democracy more realistic," it is suggested, that the
work of the empirical theorists can be shown to be conservative and
ideologicalin character(Walker, 1965: 287-288).
I now turn to consideration of this further criticism,againtakingDahl
(1956b) as my example. The final chapter does consist of an attempt to
relate his "polyarchal" ideal of democracy to the "American hybrid"
system of government. Dahl begins by conceding that "no human
organization"is "ever likely to meet" all eight conditions which make up
his ideal of democracy. But we should not, therefore, assume that there
are no genuinely democratic political systems in existence. This would be
"to read the human race out of politics" whereas what we ought to do is
"to interpret each of the conditions" as "one end of a continuum." We
may then be able to show that certain actual political systems meet these
eight conditions to a sufficient degree to ensure "ruleby the people" and
may thus be characterizedas genuinely democraticpolitical systems (Dahl,
1956b: 71,69, 74).
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [295]

This way of relating theory and practice is a familiar tactic amongthe


empirical theorists of democracy. The idea is "to codify the operating
characteristicsof the democratic polity itself" (Almond and Verba, 1963:
5) and thus to "expose the real processesby which democracyhas always
worked" (Hartz, 1960: 14). The point is to establish that there are
political systems which may be called genuinely democratic, and may thus
be distinguishedfrom dictatorships(Key, 1956: 9-11). In Dahl'saccount a
political system is said to have reached the crucialpoint on the polyarchal
scale at which it may be distinguishedas a genuine democracyif it has two
properties:it must operate a minimumversionof the polyarchalideal;and
it must be devoted to maximizingit. The minimum version of the ideal is
in turn said to consist of two components: it must allow for "continuous
political competition among individuals, parties or both" and it must
maintain a regular "election process." Any system possessing these
features is said to embody "the two fundamental methods of social
control which, operating together, make governmentalleaders so respon-
sive to non-leadersthat the distinction between democracy and dictator-
ship still makes sense (Dahl, 1956b: 131-132; see also Dahl, 1967b: esp.
260-263; and Walker,1965: 286, for a summaryof Dahl's case).
These attempts to formulate a so-called operational definition of
democracy have been attacked in two connected ways. They have been
accused of removing "the vital force, the radical thrust" (Walker,1965:
288; compare Davis, 1964: 46) from the theory of democracy,since they
"reject outright" the "old democratic vision of a community of
participatingmembers" (Duncan and Lukes, 1963: 158). The effect of
"strippingaway" this "distinctive emphasis on popular political activity"
is that "the rationale for popular political activity which is at the heart of
so much democratic theory has been rejected"(Walker,1965: 287; Davis,
1964: 37). Second, this conservative effect is said to be achieved by a
manifestly ideological redefinition of the term democracy itself. As
Duncan and Lukes (1963: 163) put it (in an attack on a Dahl [1956a]
essay), "the rejection of the classicalrequirementof participationrests on
an obvious redefinition of democracy." Or as Davis (1964: 44) puts it,
such key terms as "responsible popular government" simply "have
different meanings"in traditionaland modem democratic theories.
This fourth and final chargeis the most telling line of attack. The claim
about the effects of the empirical theorists' work seems justified. They
have undoubtedly devalued the idea of popular political participation.
Dahl's account, for example, while it does not reject the value, gives little
prominence to it in the minimumversion of the democraticideal which he
[2961 POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

sets out. This remainstrue, moreover, despite all Dahl's'recenttinkerings


with his theory. The effect, moreover,has undoubtedly been to turn the
ideal of democracy into a more elitist (and in that sense a more
conservative)political creed. But the central claim, to the effect that this
has been brought about by changing the meaning of democracy, seems
much less justified. Just what is meant by this vague and implausible
chargehas neverbeen made clear. It might refer to one of two possibilities,
which need to be distinguishedand consideredin turn. It could mean that
the empirical theorists have tried to legislate about the nature of the
circumstances which justify the application of the term democracy,
granted that the essential criterion for its applicationis that there should
be "rule by the people." Or it could mean-a far more radicalcharge-that
the empirical theorists have tried to legislate about the commonly
accepted linguistic information about the term by denying that the
essential criterion for its application is that there should be "rule by the
people."
It is true that some early critics of the classic version of democratic
theory attempted to legislate about the lexical entry for the term
democracy in this way. Schumpeter's account, for example, which has
some claim to be the prototype of empiricaltheory, denies that we should
be looking for a set of circumstancesin which "the people actually rule in
any obvious sense of the terms 'people' and-'rule' " and insists that
democracy means "only that the people have the opportunityof accepting
or refusingthe men who are to rule them" (Schumpeter, 1965: 284-285).
Similarly Mayo (1960: 59) quotes with apparent approval Robert
Maclver'sinsistence that the concept of democracycannot refer to "a way
of governing"since the people themselves "do not and cannot govern,"
but only to "a way of determining who shall govern." It is obvious,
however, that this represents the crudest possible ideological move and
that there can be no question of this move being made by any of the more
recent empiricaltheorists. On the contrary, they are all concernedto insist
both that the essential criterion for democracy must be "rule by the
people" (see, e.g., the definitions by Benn, 1967: 338;Sartori, 1968: 112)
and that their own aim is merely to show that the natureand rangeof the
circumstanceswhich may be held to count as a case of "rule by the
people," and thus as a case of democracy,have tended to be too narrowly
circumscribedin classic versionsof democratic theory.
This leads,however, to the other possible sense which might be assigned
to the charge about "change of meaning," which now seems to have
considerablesubstance. It does seem, that is, that what Dahl and several
Skinner / EMPIR ICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [2971

other empirical theorists may be said to be doing, in insisting that the


classic theory of democracy contains an identifiablemistake, is in effect as
follows. They seem to be claiming that the nature and range of the
circumstances which license us to say of a political system that it
constitutes a case of "rule by the people" have been too narrowly
circumscribed,since further investigationhas proved that one of them is
not necessary. Traditionally it has been taken to be necessary that there
should be extensive political participation.But the empiricaltheoristsnow
seem to be claiming that to be able to say of a political system that it
constitutes "rule by the people," it is sufficient that it should have a
particular type of social basis combined with a free and competitive
political system, as in the minimum version of Dahl'smodel.
Clearly, the critics of empirical theory have mainly been concerned
with this sense of "changing the meaning." It is also clear, however, that
they have failed to establish the main point they are concered to make.
They have not succeeded in showing, that is, that the effect of
conservatism,which has undoubtedly been generatedby the work of the
empirical theorists, can be traced to the making of any false and
ideological move in the construction of their argument.It is clear, on the
contrary, that the argumentmounted by the empiricaltheoristscontains a
genuinely empirical appeal. They have not necessarily abandoned the
traditional democratic ideal of "rule by the people" in claiming that
traditionaldemocratic theory has set an "impossible"or "unrealistic"task
(this claim is made by Berelson et. al., 1954: 306-307. 312, 322; and by
severalcontributorsto Chambersand Salisbury, 1960: 2-3, 14-15, 37-38).
They have simply made the empirical claim that the conditions sufficient
for being able to say of a given political system that it secures "ruleby the
people" have traditionallybeen too narrowly drawn and, conversely,that
the democraticideal of "rule by the people" can be satisfactorilysecured
by a wider rangeof political systems than has traditionallybeen supposed.
The critics, moreover,have not tried to uncoverany special sense in which
the empirical theoristshave engaged at this point in a covertly ideological
form of argument.They have simply made the empirical counter-claim
that one of the necessary conditions for being able to say of a given
political system that it secures "rule by the people" is now being
overlooked. The critics have thus mounted exactly the same type of
argument, containing exactly the same type of appeal to the facts of the
case, as their opponents have done. We may still wish, of course, to
stigmatize this type of argument as ideological in character.But in that
case what we are saying is that both the empiricaltheoristsand theircritics
[298] POLITICAL THEORY / AUGUST 1973

have engaged in exactly the same type of ideological argument.Whatwe


cannot say is what the critics have claimed: that they have succeeded in
disclosing, in a neutral and critical spirit, any false and ideologicalmove
made by their opponents in constructing their argumentsabout demo-
cratic theory and practice.

III
I now wish to go on to argue, however, that there is an apparently
elusive, but extremely simple ideological move which has, in fact, been
made by all the empiricaltheorists.
My point of departurelies in consideringtwo connected facts about the
term democracy itself. The first is that the term has become a subject of
ideological debate, and is to that extent free-floatingwith respect to the
nature and range of the circumstanceswhich may be held to license its
applicationas a description of a given political system. The second is that
the term makes two points about any political system which it is used to
describe: one is that the system possessesa more or less determinateset of
characteristicswhich may be taken to constitute "ruleby the people"; the
other is that the system deservesto be commended. It is a fact about the
prevailingmeaning and usage of the term democracy that it has become a
member of the class of so-called evaluative-descriptiveterms which
philosophers of languagehave recently been much concerned to analyze.
Such terms are applicableif and only if a certain state of affairs obtains,
but whenever the relevant state of affairs does obtain, then to apply the
correspondingterm is not only to describe the state of affairs, but also
(and eo ipso) to perform the speech-act of commendingit (for the best
brief discussion, see Searle, 1962: 428-430, 432; for criticism,see Hare,
1970; for a restatement,see Warnock,1971).
A brief considerationof the history of the termdemocracyprovidesthe
simplest means of illustrating these facts and the connection between
them.3 There was originally a greater degree of clarity and agreement
about the nature of the political system or state of affairswhich could be
appropriately described by the term. The Greek model offered clear
indications as to who constitutes the demos and what should count as rule
by the demos. This consensus, however, had an obvious connection with
the fact that, until relativelyrecently, few wished to commend the state of
affairs which the term described.4 During the past century, however,this
consensus has been eroded. (The recent dispute between the empirical
Skinner I EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [299]

theorists and their critics serves, indeed, to illustrate this point.) This
erosion has had an obvious connection with the growing belief that
democracy (still construed as "rule by the people") refers to a commend-
able form of government. The upshot has been the two results I have
cited: the debate about what range of circumstancesshould be held to
count as a case of "rule by the people" (and thus a case of democracy);
and the fact that the use of the term democracyperforms the speech act
of commending what is described(a fact noted, e.g., by Benn, 1957: 338;
and Sartori, 1968: IV, 112).5
If we now turn, with these features of the concept of democracyin
mind, to reconsider the ideal of a democraticsystem as set out in a work
such as Dahl (1956b), it becomes clear that his allegedly neutral and
empirical presentation of the ideal is in fact based at two points on making
the same simple but crucial ideological move. The first is made when Dahl
synthesizes his democratic ideal out of his critical account of the two
major traditions of democratic thought. The ideal is presented in such a
way that we are obliged to accept it as commendable.This follows from
the (empirical) claim that the ideal embodies the conditions necessaryand
sufficient for being able to say of a political system that it is genuinelya
democracy, and from the (linguistic) fact that to make this assertionabout
a political system is standardlyto commendit. The identical move is made
when the alleged social preconditions for democracyare set out. They are
described in such a way that we are obliged to accept them as
commendable. This follows in the same way from the (empirical) claim
that they are necessary for maintaininga genuinely democratic political
system, and the (linguistic) fact that to call a political system a democracy
is to commend it.
So far I have conceded that at least Dahl's statement of his political
ideal of democracy is left unscathed even by Taylor's attack. It seems by
no means to be left unscathed, however, by this attack on its employment
of evaluative descriptions. It is no longer open to Dahl to insist that
although some empirical theoristsmay commend what they describe,they
could equally well condemn what they describe,so that their descriptions
must remain independent of any evaluations put upon them. The
distinction cannot be sustained, because they have describedthese systems
as democracies, and it is a "non-contingent fact" (as Searle puts it in
discussingthe general relations between meaning and speech acts) that to
describe a political system as democraticis to perform a speech act within
the rangeof endorsing,commending,or approvingof it.
I have now sought to identify the ideologicalmove which Dahl and the
[300] POLITICAL THEORY / AUGUST 1973

other empirical theorists have made in constructingtheir allegedly formal


analyses of purportedly democratic political systems. It remains to be
shown how the identification of this move can in turn be used to sustain
the further charge which the critics of empiricaltheory have chiefly been
concernedto make, but do not seem entirely to have succeeded in making:
that what the empirical theorists have been doing is producing a
specifically conservative political ideology rather than a set of value-
neutralresults.
It is tempting(and fashionable)simply to accuse the empiricaltheorists
of bad faith, by trying to show that they must have intended to leave the
impression that the existing political system of the United States is
commendableas it stands, while intending to leave the furtherimpression
that they had no such conservativeintention, but were merely engagedin a
formal analysis of the system. It is true that this points to a possible
intention. It is even arguablethat, if the empiricaltheoristshad in fact had
this precise intention, then it would have been rational for them to
produce the precise account of democratictheory and practice which they
have in fact produced. Nevertheless,it will be more conclusive to follow
out the implications of the argumentI have alreadypresented,by showing
how the conservatism of the empiricaltheorists simply follows from the
nature of the logical and linguistic materialsout of which (with whatever
intentions) their theory has been constructed.
The pivot on which the empirical theory of democracy swings
inescapably in a conservative direction is provided by the attempt to
construct an "operational" definition of democracy. This involves the
empiricaltheorists in making the following two contrastingclaims. On the
one hand they insist that since the whole aim is to make the concept
operational,so must it be proper to abstract a definition of democracy
from the political experience of existing "polyarchies."This leads them (as
I have illustratedfrom Dahl's work) to emphasize the sufficiency of only
two criteria for applying the term: that free and regularelections should
be held; and that there should be continuouspolitical competition for the
people's votes. But, on the other hand, they also insist (as I have also
illustratedfrom Dahl's model) that any existing polyarchy which embodies
this minimumversion of the ideal and seeks to maximize it may be said to
constitute a case of "rule by the people" and thus a genuine case of
democracy.
This serves in two ways to generate the conservativeand ideological
character of empirical theory. The first and obvious point is that this
guaranteesthat the existing arrangementsof a number of political systems
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [301

cannot fail to be treated as commendable. For the idea of an operational


definition that entails a number of existing polyarchies, notably the
United States, cannot fail to embody the two criteriain terms of which a
theorist like Dahl arrivesat his minimum version of the democraticideal.
The speech act potential of the term democracy then means that, when it
is applied to describe such existing polyarchies, the act of commending
their arrangementsis thereby performed. The underlying impression of
political conservatism,in an account such as Dahl's, is thus not primarily
generatedbecause the political system of the United States is commended
explicitly, on the grounds of its stability and efficiency. It is generatedby
the fact that the existing, operative political system is commended
implicitly, through the equation between its salient features and the
allegedly sufficient conditions for saying of a political system that it is
genuinelya democracy.

IV
I turn finally to the other, more positive way in which the idea of an
operational definition serves to give the empirical theorists their air of
producing an apologia for the workings of certain existing political
systems. This derives from the fact that the commendatory force of the
term democracyis sufficiently strong for its use to serve as a defence and
legitimation of these political systems against the two major criticisms
which politicalscientists have usually made of them.
The nature of these criticisms can best be indicated by recallingcertain
long-suspected and by now familiar facts about the present political
system of the United States, which have been furnishedby two converging
lines of research. The first has focused on the behavior of voters at
American elections (these facts have been classically summarized by
Berelson et al., 1954: ch. 14; the account is paraphrasedby Duncan and
Lukes, 1963: 161-162). The classic studies in this genre-the pioneering
study Votingand the more recent study of The American Voter(Campbell
et al. 1960: 543)-have produced, as the authors of the latter study put it,
"a portrait of an electorate almost wholly without detailed information
about decision-makingin government." The meaningful participation of
the voter in the political process appearsto be confined almost exclusively
to the exercise of a generally ill-informed choice between rivalcandidates
who periodicallypresent themselves to compete for such votes at national
elections. The other convergingline of researchhas focused on the role of
[302] POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

leaders in this type of system. They are seen to constitute what Key has
not scrupled to call a "ruling class" or at least an "activistsubculture,"
making most of the major decisions about the actual business of
governmentindependently of those whom they nominallyrepresent(Key,
1956: 537, 542). This was Schumpeter's(1965: 285) view summarizedin
his claim that in democraciesit is the politicans who rule. And his account
has been endorsed by most of the more recent empirical theorists,
includingDahl (1956b: 130-133; Almond and Verba, 1963: 478).
The significanceof these facts is that they appearto license, and indeed
to require,the applicationto such a political system of at least two general
descriptionswhich also serve to evaluateit in a conspicuouslyunfavorable
way. The first is that this type of system seems highly elitist. The empirical
theorists have in fact found this description very hard to reject. Some
(notably Dahl [1966: 297, n.] himself) insist that such a descriptionmust
be "inaccuratein implication,"but others (notably Lipset [1962: 33] and
Almond and Verba [1963: 490, 476, 478]) feel obliged to concede that
the political systems they have-analyzed do presuppose"the maintenance
of elite power" (for other instances, see, e.g., Komhauser,1959: 16; Key,
1956: 9, 542). The other, even more strongly unfavorabledescriptionis
that such a political system must in effect be an oligarchy. This
characterizationwas at first accepted by a number of early writers on
political parties, including Mosca and Ostrogorski,and of course Michels
with his formulation of the claim in terms of an "iron law" (for a
discussion of this group of writers, see Runciman, 1963: ch. 4, 64-86).
Again, however,the more recent empiricaltheoristshave tried to repudiate
it, and to insist (as Dahl himself puts it) that any suggestionsabout "covert
oligarchy" give a "misleading"view of the systems they have analyzed
(Dahl, 1970: 7;see also Dahl, 1961b: 312-313).
Consider now the significance of these facts in relation to any
attempted legitimation of the workings of a political system of this type,
such as operatesin the United States. Any apologist will need to be able to
show that these unfavorablecharacterizationscan in some way be defeated
or at least overriden. One of the main ideological tasks for such an
apologist will thus be to discover how such a reevaluation may be
achieved. Several different strategies will be theoretically possible. One of
the most powerful, however, will clearly consist of trying to establish, as a
purely empirical claim, that the same facts about the given system can
with equal plausibility be described in favorably evaluative terms. The
strategy will consist, that is, of trying to apply a rival evaluative
description to the same political system which in turn fulfills two
Skinner / EMPIRICAL THEORISTS OF DEMOCRACY [3031

contrastingconditions: that it is more or less equally plausibleto apply it


in light of the known facts about the given system; and that its
applicability entails that the existing, unfavorable evaluations of the
system are therebydefeated or at least overriden.
It will by now be clear that the operational definition of democracy
supplied by Dahl and the other empirical theorists is in fact perfectly
adapted to performingprecisely this ideological task. To see how this is so,
we need only recall the two considerations I have sought to emphasize
about the currentmeaning and use of the term democracyitself. The first
relates to the circumstanceswhich may be held to justify the application
of the term as an apt description of a given political system. As I have
indicated, this has become a subject of ideological debate. It follows that
the possibility may already be said to exist for trying, with some
plausibility, to insist that the conditions necessary for applying the term
may traditionallyhave been too narrowly drawn,and thus that theremay
be grounds for insisting that a prima facie elitist and oligarchicpolitical
system may properly be described as a genuine democracy. The other
consideration relates to the range of speech acts which the term
democracy is standardly used to perform. As I have indicated, this has
become confined to such acts as commendingor approvingof any process
or state of affairs which is thus described. It follows that if a primafacie
elitist and oligarchicpolitical system can in fact be plausibly describedas a
genuine democracy, then the commendatory force of this term will be
sufficiently strong for a conservativeand apologetic effect to be achieved.
First of all, the applicability of this description entails the defeat of the
claim that these systems are oligarchies. For a political system which can
properly be describedas a democracycannot also be properly describedas
an oligarchy. And second, the force of the act of commendation
performed by the application of this description is enough to override,
even if it cannot defeat, the accusation that these are elitist political
systems. For its application suggests that the existence of a ruling elite
may be compatible with the maintenance of a genuinely democratic
political system, or at least its application overrides the unfavorable
evaluation of the system as elitist with the more powerful commendation
which is undoubtedly involved in insisting that it can nevertheless be
properlycalled a democracy.
It is in this way that the applicationof the termdemocracy to the type
of political system Dahl describes constitutes an act of political con-
servatism: it serves to commend the recently prevailing values and
practices of a political system like that of the United States, and it
[3041 POLITICALTHEORY / AUGUST 1973

constitutes a form of argumentagainstthose who have sought to question


the democraticcharacterof those valuesand practices.

NOTES
1. Dahl (1966: 298) has protested this tactic.
2. Most empirical theorists exhibit this commitment to the idea of a strict logical
distinction between factual and evaluative statements (see, e.g., the introductory
remarks in Cnudde and Neubauer, 1969: 1;Mayo, 1960: vi;Sartori, 1965: 4-5).
3. I owe this suggestion to Mr. John Dunn (1972).
4. Democracy, as it was used at least until the end of the eighteenth century,
expressed disapproval (see, e.g., the use by Johnson in Boswell: I, 529).
5. It tends to be said that the term implies approval, which is somewhat
misleading (see, e.g., Parry, 1969: 141).

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6. Castles D
Francis I n
Facultyof Social Sciences, |^
The Open University ti

social insight
A clear, well written discussion of the importance of sociological
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political sociology.
ISBN 0-8039-0150-X November, 1971 148 pages $7.50
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