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In modern political science, the term polyarchy (Greek: poly "many", arkhe "rule") was used by Robert Dahl to describe a form of government in which power is invested in multiple people. It takes form of neither dictatorship nor democracy. This form of government was first implemented in the United States and France and was gradually adopted by many other countries.


  • The change of scale and its consequences—representative government, greater diversity, the increase in cleavages and conflicts—helped to bring about the development of a set of political institutions that, taken together, distinguish modern representative democracy from all other political systems, whether nondemocratic regimes or earlier democratic systems. This kind of political system has been called polyarchy, a term that I use frequently. Polyarchy can be understood in several ways: as a historical outcome of efforts to democratize and liberalize the political institutions of nation states; as a distinctive type of political order or regime different in important ways not only from nondemocratic systems of all kinds but also from earlier small-scale democracies; as a system à la Schumpeter) of political control in which the highest officials in the government of the state are induced to modify their conduct so as to win elections in political competition with other candidates, parties, and groups; as a system of political rights (discussed earlier in chapter 11); or as a set of institutions necessary to the democratic process on a large scale.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 15 : The Second Democratic Transformation: From the City-State to the Nation-State
  • Polyarchy is a political order distinguished at the most general level by two broad characteristics: 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 the government. The first characteristic distinguishes polyarchy from more exclusive systems of rule in which, though opposition is permitted, governments and their legal oppositions are restricted to a small group, as was the case in Britain, Belgium, Italy, and other countries before mass suffrage. The second characteristic distinguishes polyarchy from regimes in which, though most adults are citizens, citizenship does not include the right to oppose and vote out the government, as in modern authoritarian regimes.
    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 15 : The Second Democratic Transformation: From the City-State to the Nation-State
  • More specifically, and giving greater content to these two general features, polyarchy is a political order distinguished by the presence of seven institutions, all of which must exist for a government to be classified as a polyarchy.

    1. Elected officials. Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.
    2. Free and fair elections. Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon.
    3. Inclusive suffrage. Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election of officials.
    4. Right to run for office. Practically all adults have the right to run for elective offices in the government, though age limits may be higher for holding office than for the suffrage.
    5. Freedom of expression. Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined, including criticism of officials, the government, the regime, the socioeconomic order. and the prevailing ideology.
    6. Alternative information. Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by laws.
    7. Associational autonomy. To achieve their various rights, including those listed above, citizens also have a right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.

    • Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 15 : The Second Democratic Transformation: From the City-State to the Nation-State
  • Polyarchy was a term that I think had been developed in the eighteenth century, as you know from the Greek meaning “many rulers” (poly; archon). I came to the conclusion early on that we should not keep trying to use the word democracy in both its ideal and in its realistic sense, particularly given the actual democracies that had evolved, with representation and the growth of political parties and a whole new species, a whole new different kind of political system. We needed, then, to modify our language, so that we could describe democracy as an ideal, using the term democracy there, but we needed a term—it never actually became a household term, but we needed a term that described actual eighteenth-, nineteenth-, twentieth-century democracies. And I stumbled on the word polyarchy and started applying that. As I say, it didn’t become the term, and I do think it’s still confusing that the term applies to both, but I think we’re a little bit more comfortable now, perhaps, than we were in making sure which it is that we’re talking about, and when we use the word democracy, whether we’re talking about smallscale democracy, large-scale democracy, polyarchy as I would call it, multi-party democracy, a whole, much more diverse, much more complex...
    • Robert A. Dahl, in: Robert A. Dahl and Margaret Levi, "A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl", Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2009.
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