Hauss and Dahl’s definition of democracy vis-a-vis ‘American exceptionalism’

Topics: America

Various leading political scientists of the twentieth century have understood, defined and interpreted ‘democracy’ in a variety of ways. Robert Dahl, arguably the most influential American political scientist of the 20th century reckons that democracy is a utopian concept that is not found anywhere in contemporary geo-politics. In its stead, leading industrial societies of the world, including the United States have a ‘Plutocracy’, where power is shared and wielded by various major public institutions. Plutocracy is less idealistic than democracy in that it is not the people’s voice but the will of the institutions that holds sway over policy.

But plutocracy is still better than a totalitarian society where power is concentrated in the hands of small ruling elite with no accountability. Dahl classifies political systems under a spectrum of five gradations. At the top of the scale are the fairest systems that employ ‘rational persuasion’ for gathering public consensus. At the bottom of the scale are brutal autocracies that regularly resort to ‘physical force’ to keep the population under control.

But Dahl admits that even in the most fair of existing systems the power is wielded from top-down. This means that the notion of democracy as a people-inspired and people-regulated governing system does not exist anywhere today.

Professor Charles Hauss understands democracy in terms of functioning electoral politics. Any nation-state that conducts free and fair elections periodically would qualify as democratic under this view. In Hauss’ own words “free, open and competitive elections are central conditions for a democracy”.

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(Hauss, as quoted in Edwards 2010) Also important to this setup is the credibility of ‘rule of law’. Moreover, Hauss believes that politics is entwined with the economic system. Hence only an industrial or post-industrial capitalist society is capable of practicing democracy. Although many under-developed and developing nations do hold periodic elections, Hauss reckons that they do not prove to be free and fair. To this extent this latter category of countries would only be nominal democratic societies.

When we analyze the American political system in the backdrop of the definitions of Hauss and Dahl, we can note a few divergences. What Dahl’s list of options for population control does not mention is ‘propaganda’. The Chomsky-Herman propaganda model fills the gap left by Dahl’s conceptualization. Given that America is the birthplace for modern advertising and the Public Relations industry (PR) in the country is billions of dollars worth, it is fair to claim that PR is the foremost method here for the control of public minds. It is difficult to place the American style of governance in the gradation offered by Dahl. The most benign method of generating public consensus proposed by Dahl is ‘rational persuasion’. America is an exception to even this benign form of manufactured consent, for what the PR industry does is irrational persuasion. As Chomsky-Herman note, advertising is all about “misinforming people so that they make irrational choices”. (Chomsky, quoted in Wilson 2010)

There is less divergence with Hauss’ understanding of democracy, for he links it with the capitalist economy. America being the leading practitioner of capitalism qualifies under Hauss’ classification. Moreover, there is competent enforcement of law within the country, although America is well-known for breaching international law, especially under the auspices of the United Nations.

Seymour Martin Lipset, on the other hand, would have found the American political system disappointing in terms of how democratic he found it to be. He believed that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy”. (Lipset, quoted in Edwards 2010) But, clearly, despite America’s enormous wealth the country has only a plutocracy to show for it. This undermines Lipset’s theory of democracy.

In recent years there have not been any significant changes to the functioning style of American politics. The 9/11 terror attacks added fuel to America’s already aggressive foreign policy approach. But the domestic policy had continued its neo-liberal emphasis and pro-business orientation. As a result the economy went into a crisis precipitated by the housing market bubble-burst of 2008. And it has continued to remain in the recession mode for many years now. Unemployment rates have reached unprecedented levels even as health care costs and college tuition keep nudging upwards. The recent years have been some of the most acutely distressing for the American population since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This state of affairs is a reflection of the lack of a functioning democracy here.

Belen Fernandez the noted journalist working for the Al Jazeera network sees American democracy from a post-colonial strategic perspective. She is critical of American diplomatic and military interventions in the Middle-East. The fact that a decisive majority of the American population are against these interventions underscores the failure of American democracy. According to Fernandez, the threatening rhetoric toward Iran and Syria is indicative of a lack of democratic will to reign policy measures. She believes that the election and re-election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 respectively has neither improved the state of American democracy, nor have they allayed the fears of insecure enemies abroad. Fernandez accuses “neoconservatives, Zionists, and other creatures” for stoking fears concerning Islamic nationalism in Iran. She is critical of their false rhetoric about “the exporting of radical Shiite teachings to Latin America and the alleged susceptibility of the US-Mexico border to penetration by Iran.” (Fernandez, 2013)

Works Cited:

Belen Fernandez, (15th September 2013), Iran’s Invisible Army in Latin America, Al Jazeera, retrieved from on 25th September 2013.

Edwards, George C., Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry. Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy (15th Edition, 2010)

Wilson, James Q., and John J. Diiulio and Meena Bose. American Government: Institutions and Policies (12th ed. 2010)

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Hauss and Dahl’s definition of democracy vis-a-vis ‘American exceptionalism’. (2019, Feb 28). Retrieved from

Hauss and Dahl’s definition of democracy vis-a-vis ‘American exceptionalism’
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