Polyarchy in England and France

Living in a world that is putting an ever increasing emphasis on the value of Democracy, it becomes important from the political scientist’s perspective that we have a formula we can use to determine exactly how democratic a country is. By setting out criteria that a country must meet in order to be seen as moving toward Democracy, Robert Dahl has developed just such a formula. The focus of this study will then be to examine Dahl’s formula by looking at how The United Kingdom of Great Britain and France measure up to his criteria. We will begin by first taking a look at the mechanics of Dahl’s formula, then proceed by looking at the governmental structures of These countries, putting them up against Dahl’s litmus test to see both the democratic and not so democratic aspects of their respective governments.

Since most would agree that Great Britain and France are at the very least reasonably democratic, questioning this notion will not only make clear Robert Dahl’s theory, but give us a fresh perspective on what Democracy is, hopefully opening our minds to the idea that even the most seemingly democratic countries will inevitably fall short of the democratic ideal some ways. Dahl, in fact, makes the case that there really is no best form of Democracy for every country, and furthermore, that no country throughout history has ever achieved a perfect Democracy. Because of this, he reserves the term “Democracy” to mean an Ideal and perfect Democracy, while using the term “polyarchy” to describe regimes that have strong democratic tendencies.

What then are Dahl’s basic requirements of polyarchy? When considering

this, it is important to think along the lines of a continuum, with all the regimes of the world falling somewhere inbetween perfect Democracy and an authoritarian system of governance. With this is mind, we can begin to look at some of the basic requirements that must be met if the country is to pass Dahl’s litmus test.

First of all, the most basic criteria that Dahl lays out states that in order to be a polyarchy, the system must allow for participation in government by the citizens, and contestation of the government by the citizens. While these two basic rules form a good foundation by themselves, the are far too vague to generate a good model of a county’s government. How then can we make these two concepts of participation and contestation more concrete? To deal with this question, Dahl lays out three “unimpaired opportunities that all full citizens must retain.” First, he remarks that the people must have the right to formulate preferences. Secondly, they must “have the right to signify those preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action.” And finally, they must “have the right to have their preferences weighed without discrimination by the government because of the content or source of the preference.” (Dahl p.2). He then goes on to enumerate eight guarantees that a government must grant its citizens if these three opportunities are to be met.

In order for citizens to have the opportunity to formulate preferences, Dahl claims that citizens must have the “the freedom to form and join organizations, the freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right of political leaders to compete for support, and the right to alternative sources of information”. For the opportunity to signify those preferences, citizens must have all the five previously mentioned freedoms as well as two more: “eligibility for public office and free, fair elections.” Finally, if citizens are to have their preferences weighed equally in conduct of government, they must have all seven of the above mentioned rights and freedoms, plus, “the institutions that constitute the government must depend on the votes and other expressions of preferences by the citizens.”

Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy then can be summarized as requiring a government that is brought to power in free and fair elections by as large a percentage of the population it will govern as possible. It must be subordinate to a citizenry that has access to non censored information and is free to speak out against the government it elected. With this in mind, let us now continue our study by shifting out focus to the governmental structures of Great Britain and France to see how well they meet this criteria.

Perhaps the most notable thing abut the government of Great Britain is that while it is officially a constitutional monarchy, it has no written Constitution. While it may seem that this would make for a regime that could be oppressive, it has worked fairly well for The United Kingdom. In fact, it has actually made the British system of government more adaptable that it may have been if its constitution was specifically spelled out (Goodgov). The British election system is a single member district plurality with the Conservative and Labor parties being the most influential (Concise Columbia Encyclopedia: Great Britain). The governmental structure is a bit strange in that the Monarchy has been retained in the form of the Royal Family and House of Lords. The Royal Family has retained only a symbolic role in government, and while the House of Lords, consisting of 1185 members still acts as an ultimate court of appeals and may delay and examine legislation, generally speaking, the monarchy has largely been striped of political influence.

Instead, the real driving force behind British government resides in the House of Commons. This parliamentary body consists of the Prime Minister who is elected by a popular vote, a Cabinet, or who is selected by the Prime Minister, and the members of the House of Commons who are elected from their respective districts in “winner take all” elections.

Knowing the basic format of the British system of governance, we can now begin to put it up against Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy. We will start by asking if British citizens are free to “formulate their own preferences.” Generally, it would seem that the answer to this question is yes, but let us look at this question using the five qualifiers that Dahl lays out. (1) Do the people have the right to form and join organizations? While The United Kingdom is officially a two party system, the existence of small parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the fact that people are free to join unions shows us that British citizens are relatively free to form and join organizations. (2) Is there freedom of expression? While British citizens typically choose not to partake in demonstration, they do enjoy, for the most part the freedom of expression. Even in the event of a riot such as in 1911 where two rioters were killed, the British government tends to be careful about protecting this freedom (The People’s Chronology: Human Rights and social Justice. 1911). (3) Do the people have the right to vote? While there are always many factors affecting the issue of suffrage, I think it can be said that generally The United kingdom has been fairly inclusive about who is able to vote. Historically, there has been problems such as an immigration act in 1968 that excluded thousands of Asians in Kenya from official citizenship, but with the downfall of British colonialism, these problems have largely gone away, leaving for the most part, universal suffrage (The People’s Chronology: Population, 1968). (4) Are political leaders free to compete for support? Parties in the United Kingdom are fairly strong, and it is usually them who decides who will run for public office in a certain district. This does not look good from Dahl’s perspective. Technically, the citizenry is free to run for office, but without party backing, it becomes almost impossible to win. However, while the British system does fall short in this area, it is important to remember that we are not holding The United Kingdom to the Democratic ideal, but rather to the expectations of polyarchy which automatically assumes the system will be at the very least slightly undemocratic in some ways. And finally, (5) are the people free to alternative sources of information? The answer to this, I think can best be illustrated by the recent events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. Clearly, if censorship was a problem, the news and tabloids would not have had nearly as much publishing freedom as they did during this traumatic time. Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that British citizens are very free to alternative sources of information.

This brings us to the question of weather or not British citizens “have the right to signify those preferences to their fellow citizens by individual and collective action (Dahl p. 2).” As mentioned above, for a citizenry to have this right, they must have all five of the above mentioned qualifiers in addition to two more. (6) Is the common citizen eligible to run for public office? Again, we run into the same problem with this question as we ran into with question four. The political parties have become such a force in Great Britain that it is virtually impossible to win without their support. Technically, however, the average citizen is eligible to run for office, albeit, if they wish to win, they must follow tradition by climbing up the party ladder. And (7), are there free and fair elections? Largely, the answer to this question is yes. There really is no problem with the government tampering with election results, and except for the trouble with the parties controlling who runs for office, the elections are free.

Lastly, the question remains if these preferences are “weighed equally in the conduct of government with no discrimination because of the content or source of the preference. ” Again, for this to be the case, all seven of the above mentioned qualifiers must be present, plus the policy making institutions must depend on “votes and other expressions of preference (Dahl p. 3).” In large part, this is the case. Both the Prime Minister and the members of the House of Commons are popularly elected in free, fair elections, and as a check on the Prime Minister’s powers, the members of the House of Commons may call for a vote of censure, and if the Prime Minister doesn’t get a majority, he must resign. There is, however a significant hindrance to this qualifier. While the citizens of Northern Ireland must live under British rule, they don’t feel that they are represented, and in large part do not participate in the governmental system. Because of this, the elected officials aren’t really accountable to the people in Northern Ireland This does Present a problem from the standpoint of representation.

By looking at Great Britain from the perspective of Dahl’s three requirements and their eight respective qualifiers, we see that indeed, this country definitely does not meet the criteria for a pure Democracy. It falls short most notably in the areas of who may run for office with a reasonable chance of winning, and in the fact that the people living in Northern Ireland are not well represented. Another strike against the United kingdom is the fact that the Prime Minister may declare a state of emergency, suspending human rights. It is, however clear that The United Kingdom does meet most of the criteria by a fairly large margin, and falls well inside the confines of polyarchy

To put this into perspective, let us now look at France’ s government using the same formula. Unlike The United kingdom, France has been relatively unstable throughout history. Because it was so bloody and no real defined Democracy emerged, the French Revolution is thought of by many to be “incomplete.” On average, France has had a new government implemented every eighteen years, and it wasn’t until 1958 that the current government (the Fifth Republic) emerged (Hollifield and Ross p. 43).

France is a mix between a Parliamentary and Presidential system. This is because historically, the legislature had been to powerful and it was thought that if a President was brought into the system and made the dominant government official, it would serve as a check to the power of the legislature. The President serves terms of seven years and can be re-elected. He is the only popularly elected official and is responsible for appointing the Prime Minister and the “government”, or Council of Ministers. His powers include being able to devolve the National Assembly and Council of Ministers, propose referendums, and force Parliament to re-consider legislation. Unofficially, he also may use his party ties to control Parliament and get them to dismiss Cabinet Ministers. The Parliament is a legislative, bicameral body that has the power to debate legislation, as well as to use a vote of censure, ousting the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

How well then does France measure up to these three requirements? Are French citizens free to formulate preferences? Again, let us determine this by looking at the five qualifiers that Dahl lays out. (1) Are French citizens free to “form and join organizations”? Well, like The United Kingdom, France has a number of minor parties, and unions. Also, French citizens may join interest groups. This demonstrates that indeed, they are free to form and join organizations. (2) Do the French have freedom of expression? The answer to this question is a resounding yes! In fact, it is not uncommon to see them partaking in political street demonstrations. (3) Do they have the right to vote? While much of the government is appointed by the President, the executive himself and the members of Parliament are in fact elected, so the answer to this question is yes as well. However, historically, France has passed laws such as the one in 1850 which discriminated against radical workers who “tended to be migratory,” by requiring that people live in one place for three years in order to vote (The People’s Chronology: Human Rights and Social Justice, 1850). (4) Do political leaders have the right to compete for support? Yes. In fact, because France uses an electoral system of proportional representation, small parties have more opportunity to compete with the larger parties than in Great Britain. (And finally (5) do the French have access to alternate sources of information? While there are certainly areas where the French government holds information back from the citizens (all governments do to a certain extent), the French tend to be fairly liberal, and thus put a high priority on being open to alternative sources of information. There is also a wide range of political ideals in France which shows us that the French government has, in general, been fairly good about not censoring information.

It seems that France has done fairly well with Dahl’s first requirement; let us now see if French citizens are free to signify those preferences. As before, if this next requirement is to be met, the first five qualifiers must be true along with (6) eligibility for public office and (7) free, fair elections. Eligibility for public office does poses a bit of a problem for polyarchy. In France, it is decided at an early age if a child is to go to college or not, and without a college education, a person can not be prepared for a career in public office. If the opportunity for an education is taken away from a person, that person is, for all intensive purposes, not allowed to run for public office. France does, however, do better with question seven, and elections are, for the most part free and fair.

Finally, this leaves us with the last of Dahl’s three requirements: Are the citizen’s preferences “weighed equally in the conduct of the government, without discrimination because of the content or source of the preference?” This leaves us with the eighth and final qualifier: Do the governmental institutions responsible for making policy depend on votes and other expression of preference? Again, the answer to this question leaves us in the gray area. The President, most definitely is directly accountable to the people as he is publicly elected, but the Cabinet and Council of Ministers also play in important role in government and they are merely appointed by the President. Furthermore, while the Parliament is an elected body, the fact that France uses proportional representation means that the members who run for office are chosen by their respective parties, and thus are more subordinate to those parties than the people who elected them.

Like the United Kingdom, France is far from a perfect Democracy. In fact, it seems to me that the areas where France falls short are a great deal more important to polyarchy than those where the United Kingdom is lacking. Most importantly is the fact that a large percentage of the French population may not so much as hope to run for public office. While it may do wonders for their educational system to allow only those who prove themselves at an early age to attend college, it is, without a doubt a remarkably important undemocratic feature of their social system, and frankly it worries me. Nonetheless, in large part, France does meet most of the criteria that Dahl lays out, and while in my opinion it is less of a polyarchy than Great Britain, it still seems to fall within the confines of polyarchy.

In this study, we have looked at Dahl’s criteria for polyarchy, and applied this criteria to both The United Kingdom and France, comparing the results to see the areas where they hold with Dahl’s formula for polyarchy as well as those where they break from it. Finally, I have briefly described why I have concluded that France is further from complete polyarchy on our continuum than Great Britain. Hopefully, this study has succeeded in taking the abstract ideas of Robert Dahl, and by applying them to two familiar countries, made them seem a little more concrete.

Works Cited

Dahl, Robert. Polyarchy; Participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 1995

Hollifield, James and Ross, George. Searching for the new France. New York:

Routledge, 1991

Publishing Staff. “CD-ROM: Microsoft Bookshelf 1996. Concise Columbia Encyclopedia

Licensed by: Columbia University Press, 1885

Publishing Staff. “The current constitution of Great Britain” Goodgov on the web.

Plymouth State College Internet. 13 October. 1997. Available:


Publishing Staff. “CD-ROM: Microsoft Bookshelf 1996 The People’s Chronology.

Licensed by: Holt and Company, 1994

© Cliff R. Pearson

14, October 1997

All rights reserved

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