Robert A. Dahl, an esteemed and influential political scientist who in such books as “Who Governs?” championed democracy in theory and critiqued it in practice, has died. He was 98.
A professor emeritus at Yale University, Dahl died Wednesday at a nursing home in Hamden, Conn., according to his daughter Sara Connor.
His career lasted for more than half a century, but he was best known for the 1961 publication “Who Governs?” Cited by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most influential books since World War II, “Who Governs?” probed the political system of Dahl’s own community at the time, New Haven, Conn., which he considered an ideal microcosm for the country: two strong parties, a long history and a careful progression from patrician rule to self-made men to party rule, where candidates of varied ethnic and economic backgrounds — a garage owner, an undertaker, a director of publicity — might succeed.
Dahl wanted to know who really ran the city, and, by extension, the country. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in “The Power Elite,” had written that wealth and power were concentrated within a tiny group of people. Dahl believed no single entity was in charge. Instead, there were competing ones — social, economic and political leaders whose goals often did not overlap. He acknowledged that many citizens did not participate in local issues and that the rich had advantages over the poor, but concluded that New Haven, while a “republic of unequal citizens,” was still a republic.
Dahl’s conclusions were strongly challenged in the 1970s by sociologist G. William Domhoff, who used research provided in part by Dahl himself to find that he had underestimated the power of the business community and overestimated the divisions among New Haven’s leaders. Domhoff suggested that Dahl relied too much on the people he spoke with.
“It may be that the most serious criticism I can make of Dahl is that he never should have done this interview-based study in the first place, for it was doomed from the start to fall victim to the ambitions and plans of the politicians, planners, lawyers and businessmen that he was interviewing,” Domhoff wrote.
Dahl himself tried to bring more democracy to the Yale campus, especially during the uprisings of the 1960s and ‘70s. In 1965, he headed a committee that gave students a role in granting tenure to faculty members. Six years later, he chaired a committee that led the school to start a program for African American studies.
Dahl was born Dec. 17, 1915, in Inwood, Iowa, and a decade later moved to Alaska when it was still a territory. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1936, and received a doctorate from Yale in 1940. During World War II, he was an economist on the War Production Board and later served as first lieutenant in the Army, receiving a Bronze Star. He joined the Yale faculty in 1946.
He became president of the American Political Science Assn. and won several prizes, including the Talcott Parsons Prize for social science. His other works included a popular textbook, “Democracy in the United States”; and “Polyarchy,” a term coined by Dahl for a modern, decentralized democracy.
Dahl was married twice, the second time to Ann Sale Dahl. He had six children.
Italie writes for the Associated Press.