In the past dozen years, Robert A. Dahl has made a substantial contribution to the study of politics. Still young, now a professor of political science at Yale, he has written on some of the most vexing problems in the field: the creation of American foreign policy, the connections between welfare economics and political democracy, the principles of democratic theory, and the structure of power in a small city (New Haven). He occupies a central place in his profession and is one of the most respected political scientists in the country.

It is therefore a matter of some importance that Dahl is now editing a series of eleven short books to serve as introductions to the various fields of political study; and that the most general of these books he has written himself. We would expect these books to be political science in the American sense; but we would also expect that Dahl’s editorial presence would impose restrictions of sanity and proportion on their authors.

It must be said at once that the first books in the series, by Herbert Kaufman and by Dahl, successfully abridge a large body of knowledge and make it accessible to amateurs. Moreover, they have refined as well as simplified: they will be instructive to professional students of politics. Kaufman’s book on state and local governments is especially admirable for the manner in which its author has taken a field that has traditionally attracted the dullest minds and, accordingly, the fewest students, and invested it with dignity. Kaufman’s book implied that though the state governments of this country are not full sovereignties and hence not miniatures of the national government, a study of them nevertheless involves the reader in many of the permanent problems of politics. Kaufman is explicit on the impact of our federal system on national politics: the basic unit of American politics is the state.

For some students, however, the real attraction of studying state (and local) governments may be that they offer politics on a more manageable scale than the national government does, and at a greater distance from the confusions of the emergency. Kaufman’s book exploits this potentiality. In his hands, lesser politics is rescued from pettiness and becomes a preparation for the study of high politics—the politics of lives and fortunes. It is ironical that in some ways Kaufman’s book is a more satisfactory introduction to the study of high politics than Dahl’s. Where Dahl’s subject is politics, Kaufman limits himself to state and local politics in the United States. But the truer sense of politics tout court is to be found, I think, in Kaufman’s book; it is easier to make the transition from it to all that is profound and terrible in political life.

For this is the chief difficulty with Dahl’s book, as it is with much American political science: it fails to convey a sense of the greatness of politics—its inherent tragedy, weight and moral complexity. This is not to say that Dahl’s analysis is centered on safe trivialities, or that he will leave any reader unconvinced of the importance of his subject; it is only to say that the larger possibilities of politics—to the observer, its splendid esthetic side; to the participant, its exhilarating or humiliating practical side—are not disclosed. It is unfortunate that an introduction to politics should ignore these aspects; especially as Dahl’s other, less general books take them into account.

It is sometimes said that no one who confines himself to the study of domestic politics in America, past or present, can conceive of politics as a subject involving the sense of grandeur. Tocqueville commented on the almost comic quality of American political struggles as compared to the seriousness of those in the class societies of Europe. Our politics is popularly supposed to consist in the no doubt earnest, often bitter, competition of economically secure men—whose security, however, is largely unaffected by any political outcome. When so much of politics deals with high or low tariffs, cheap or dear money, marginal advantage or disadvantage, how can anyone be expected to see it as a great subject for study? Far from great, politics is liable to be seen as mean; the pettiness of much that it deals with tending to breed in the mind of the political scientist a narrow cynicism passed off as realism. To be sure, America has had its wars and depressions; it has had to deal with slavery and race relations; but apart from the Civil War, where is the pressure, felt either by a class or by the country as a whole, of urgency—even desperation? If there is no desperation, politics (fortunately for the people, unfortunately for the student of politics) must be a little thin. Is it not then unfair, under the circumstances, to expect American political scientists to impart a feeling for its larger, grander realities?


Perhaps; though the view of American history as a long story of temperate emotions flowing in legal channels is ridiculously crude. Nevertheless, though we Americans have had a relatively minor political experience on a grand scale—which may even be reckoned one of our blessings—the fact remains that our inability to see politics fully is more the fault of certain tendencies in our study of it than of our fortunate history. These tendencies are strongly evident in Dahl’s present book.

The first of these tendencies is to make the study of politics coextensive with a study of the relations of control, wherever these relations are to be found. The relation of parent to child, manager to employee, leader to gang, mistress to servant—all qualify in equal measure for the attention of the political scientist. Dahl says, “A political system is any persistent pattern of human relationships that involves, to a significant extent, power, rule, or authority.” The sanction for this stipulation is Harold Lasswell, a pioneer in the use of scientific psychology in political research, but in spite of this authority, the stipulation is an arbitrary one. Its source is the old idea that the essence of politics (in the usual sense, not Dahl’s) is power—an idea that is at first impressive and shocking, and then upon examination turns out to be hollow. For what does this idea mean? That the motive of all political action is the pursuit, maintenance, or extension of power? That power matters because of the pleasure in wielding it? That for political men it is not so much a means as an end in itself? That material interest, prestige, honor, survival, duty, conscience, vanity, loyalty, hatred, inertia are factitious components of the political game, mere appearances or disguises? If the idea means any of these things it is obviously wrong. But if the idea is merely a tendentious way of saying that without power it is not possible to act, to promote policies, to advance interests, to discharge obligations; and that the study of politics is basically the study of the preconditions of certain kinds of action in the real world, then the idea is not wrong, merely partial. For not only the preconditions of action, but action itself—deeds, policies, measures, strategies—falls within the scope of political study. In fact, action is the core of political study, it is its core: what men of state, men of party, men of affairs have done and now do, and why. Such study must of course search for multifarious explanation; its vocabulary must include a great deal more than the one word, power.

Dahl himself, at the end of Chapter Six, very intelligently assesses and then rejects the “power thesis.” It is therefore perplexing that he should adhere to the view, derived from this thesis, that the study of politics is the study of power relationships, and the study of these relationships in all areas of life. If there is more to politics than power, why reduce its study to the study of power—the preconditions or resources of action? The large spirit of Dahl’s other books makes this question even more perplexing. Why, moreover, cause yet a further dilution of the study of politics by eliminating the qualitative distinctions between the state and all other organizations and patterns of power relationships. Why teach students that the inner workings of General Motors or the Freemasons are as appropriate as the general workings of the United States Government to the study of politics?

It is at this point that our doubts of the grandeur of politics are reinforced. If we are to make an approach to the larger possibilities of politics we must be able to see, at the very least, that the State—political organization in the ordinary sense—is rather different from anything else in society. There is no doubt that, metaphorically speaking, politics is everywhere: we are surrounded by organizations, institutions, situations, relations, in which “politics” goes on—in which power or rule or authority is sought or exercised, tactics and plots figure, hierarchical structure obtains, policies are deliberated and executed, great quantities of prestige, wealth, and so on, are at stake. Most of the words we use in talking about government can be used, without much strain, in talking about General Motors or the Freemasons. Indeed, the study of such organizations is of enormous ancillary value to the political scientist. Granted all this, the conviction persists that the state is not just one more organization in an ensemble of organizations; that it is, rather, of a different nature from the others, and not only different, but possessed of a solemnity and dignity—or, alternatively, stained by a corruption—beyond other worldly organizations or institutions.


It is not easy to be clear about the differences between politics and other matters. The history of political theory is full of the effort to clarify, to identify the peculiar nature of the state. Sometimes this peculiarity is located in its ends, sometimes in its means. Sometimes what is peculiar about the state is thought to be the source of its superiority to anything else in its milieu; sometimes the source of its inferiority. Whatever their conclusions, the assumption common to Plato, Aristole, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is that the state is problematic to a degree that no other temporal matter is; that it is morally distinct from generality and its capacity for action, it can achieve greatness, whether for good or evil, beyond the reach of any other temporal institution. Dahl indeed distinguishes “the Government” from “other governments”—on the acceptable ground that the former holds a monopoly of legitimate force and threats of force—but then he drops the subject.

Again, in his desire to make the study of politics appear to be a genuine science, Dahl diminishes its natural richness. The question of whether politics can in fact be studied like the natural sciences is bewildering; it involves questions of free will and determinism, the nature of human action as distinct from animal behavior, the limits to predictability in the field of human affairs, and the limits to the possible understanding of events and institutions remote in time or belonging to a radically alien culture. Dahl is admirably cautious in his claims for political science as, literally speaking, a science. But he tends toward the belief that what is not science is necessarily deficient. To approach politics as a science requires more than objectivity and a scrupulous regard for evidence; it also involves the search for mathematically exact knowledge culminating in the ability to predict political behavior on a large scale. Dahl is aware of the dangers of such a search, and of intruding quantification where it has no place, but the ideal set by natural science has a strong hold on him and immediately leads him to certain errors of emphasis. For example, he devotes a whole chapter to the concepts of power and influence in order to make more exact our use of these words and thus equip us for accurate comparisons between the relative power or influence of various men. If we can do this we are being scientific: we are using our terms precisely and are enjoying an approximation of quantified knowledge. But when political concepts—like power or freedom or the common good—are troublesome, the goal of explication must be philosophical correctness rather than making such concepts serviceable instruments for measurement. Explication will then proceed by sorting out the many uses of the concept and by answering—perhaps tentatively—a host of kindred questions in which the concept figures. H. L. A. Hart’s The Concept of Law is a spendid recent example of this kind of work. Power, no more than Bentham’s pleasure, admits of quantifications. Good usage is not the same as mathematically precise usage. Moreover, the concept of power is in far less need of extended discussion than most other political ideas.

But the serious consequence of Dahl’s attachment to the scientific model is that his treatment of politics leans too much towards the abstract and the general; he is too little concerned with the messy abundance of political history. These are faults forgivable only in a political moralist. When one is trying to introduce students to politics, a historical rather than a systematic approach is likely to be more effective. If systematic politics is to come in the course of study, it should come at the end. Or perhaps it should never come at all, for it may inevitably be too artificial or too amorphous. The alternative—to seek out illustrations of a large number of political situations; to try to say what political men did, and why, and in what context; to concentrate on policy, choice, consequence—would not be science, indeed, but it would leave some significant residue in the mind. The aspiration for impeccably self-conscious terminology, for a coherent and inclusive body of knowledge, for a reliable technique of prediction, would be modified, if not altogether suppressed. Such a sacrifice of science would have its significant rewards: it would give students a larger sense of what politics is about.

This Issue

November 14, 1963