What Is Political Equality?

What Is Political Equality?

I: Philip Green

What is political equality? Any simple definition of such a vague concept is unlikely to be more than a slogan. We must begin somewhere, though, and Robert Dahl’s recent essay “On Removing Certain Impediments to Democracy in the United States” in the Summer 1978 Dissent offers an excellent starting point, for which we should all be grateful.

Professor Dahl is the leading theorist of modern American liberalism, and in his most recent work he has tried mightily to escape from the inhibiting confines of that philosophical stance. As we shall see, the escape is finally unsuccessful. Dahl’s conventionally liberal understanding of “political equality” prevents him from breaking decisively with the kind of polity, marked by polarities of domination and subordination, inclusion and exclusion—all in the name of”representative government”—which he rightfully styles “pseudodemocracy.” Yet it is helpful to engage in a critique of his effort, not because he is so far from a useful solution to the problem of achieving democratic equality but rather because he comes so close to it. His failure has its roots in two aspects of modern liberalism (or its philosophical twin, social democracy): its atomistic individualism, and its concomitant concentration on distribution as the key variable in the search for alternative social formations.



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