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124 Canadian Review of American Studies Robert A. Dahl. The New American Political (Dis)Order. Berkeley: Institute of Government Studies Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 102. (An essay by Dahl with responses by Richard M. Abrams, David W. Brady, Patrick Chamorel, and Jack Citrin) For almost forty years, Robert Dahl has occupied a central position in American democratic thought. His status is best exemplified by his inclusion in that elite group of thinkers (Marx being the paradigm case) whose names are often preceded by the adjectives "early" or "late." It is to the early, elite pluralist Dahl that many still refer; A Preface to Democratic Theory has retained its de rigueur status in the literature of political science despite the efforts of participatory democratic theorists to discredit it. Even efforts of the late, socialistic Dahl have done little to remove Preface from academic shelves. Indeed, Dahl commands respects, which is precisely why this latest book will find its way to academic shelves. The truth of the matter, however, is that Dahl has little more to say in this short essay (23 pages) than one might find in a basic American government textbook. This is where his stature comes to the rescue, for while he may offer little, his words nonetheless inspire others to reflect in interesting ways upon the landscape he touches. The final result is a collection of essays which, while not providing the definitive statement on American politics, does convincingly substantiate the one point on which all seem to agree: the American political system is far too complex for anyone to understand it fully. Fortunately for readers, there is, in the midst of such uncertainly, considerable food for thought. The point of departure for all of the discussants is Dahl's thesis that a new American order has emerged. In this order, "government policies are made in response to a greater number and variety of conflicting and substantially independent interest groups," while the political institutions designed to accommodate these groups have not grown commensurately (1-2). The other principle feature of the order is that, "the plebiscitary aspect of American political life has grown ... without corresponding improvement in its representative and deliberative aspects" (2). In identifying the causes of this new system, Dahl rounds up the usual suspects: the declining role of political parties, the constitutional separation of powers, an increase in the number and diversity of interest groups, the increase in complexity resulting from a government with expanded responsibilities, and the need for technical expertise. Book &views 125 While he is hesitant to point the way out of this new order, Dahl is clear that our focus of attention should be on America's institutional malaise. His discussants, however, seem eager to shift that focus. Yes, they agree, the institutions are incapable of accommodating the demands of a complex industrial society, but perhaps in America such accommodation is too much to hope for. Patrick Chamorel argues that the U.S. case was exceptional among industrial nations in that a strong national identity with some overarching bureaucratic institutions were not firmly in place when democratic values and institutions started to develop. The result was that as "government grew, intense societal influence to which it exposed itself made it more open and representative, more fragmented and less able to coordinate its actions" (56). David Brady concurs, claiming that Dahl's new order "has in large part been brought about by reforms seeking to increase citizen participation in the democratic process" (45). With Richard Abrams, the shift away from institutions is complete: America's problems, he insists, aremore cultural than technological or structural. The suggestion, not unlike AllanBloom's in The Closing of the American Mind, is that with the collapse of the Victorian consensus and the resultant rise of relativism, America lost its moral anchor, and with it any link between self-interest and social justice. It is no wonder, Abrams concludes, that American interest groups are devoid of any public mindedness. These arguments beg huge normative questions regarding the relationship between democracy and political efficiency. While neither Chamorel nor Brady actually suggests that democratic "meddling" presents too high a cost for governance, it is nonetheless unsettling that a group of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 124-126
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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