In most of the sciences – whether human, social or natural – there is a symbiotic relationship between theoretical and quantitative approaches. Einstein would not have formulated the theory of special relativity had the Michelson-Morley experiment confirmed the existence of the aether wind. The academic study of politics, however, bucks this trend as theorists and political scientists rarely talk to each other. This is primarily because the term ‘political theory’ is generally preceded by the adjective ‘normative’, so a conversation between theorists and polsci professors might well be seen as a contravention of the naturalistic fallacy.
This is self-evidently the case in the field of social theory, dominated by the long shadow of Rawls and still dedicated to the study of ‘57 varieties of luck egalitarianism’ (Waldron, 2013, p. 21). But why should it apply to democratic theory? – common-sense would dictate this should be a combination of normative and descriptive work, as most modern poleis claim to be democracies. Yet the upgrade panel for my own PhD (on representation and sortition) advised me to choose between the theoretical and empirical literature and not to seek to reconcile the two. The recent thread on this blog discussing Gilens and Page’s claim to have disproved the median voter theorem is a good indication of the sharp divide between the two literatures.
The honourable exception to this intellectual apartheid is the work of Robert Dahl, so I would like to turn to Chapter 19 of Democracy and It’s Critics (1989), entitled ‘Is Minority Domination Inevitable?’ in order to attempt a reconciliation between these two warring tribes. In this chapter Dahl examines the ‘minority domination’ theory shared by Mosca, Marx, Lenin, Pareto, Michels and Gramsci (p.266), and concludes that it is a ‘distorted reflection of an important truth about human life’ (p.271). The ‘important truth’ is the quotidian observation that ‘even in ostensibly democratic organizations, it is the few who make the decisions and the many who do little more than go along’ (p. 267). The ‘distorted reflection’ is a result of ignoring the ‘poly’ prefix of modern democratic governance (polyarchy) – Michels’ ‘Iron law’ of oligarchy was based on a study of the internal workings of a single political party (the German SDP). But when a number of equally oligarchic parties compete in the electoral marketplace then ‘competition among political elites makes it likely that the policies of the government will respond in time to the preferences of a majority of voters’ (p. 276). ‘Michels’s mentor Pareto, [when] writing as an economist, would never have said that these competing oligarchies produced monopolistic control over consumers and the market’ (ibid.), yet all the ‘minority domination’ theorists make the ‘elementary mistake’ of failing to apply the lesson of economics to competitive elections (ibid.).
Dahl notes that
For the most part the theorists of minority domination had little or no experience with systems of competitive parties in countries with broad suffrage or, certainly, with systematic analysis of competitive party systems. Marx, for example, did not live long enough to witness the operation of ‘mass democracy’ in Britain; and Lenin never really experienced it (even in exile in Switzerland). Pareto, Mosca, Michels, and Gramsci witnessed only its beginnings. (pp. 276-277)
In addition to the problem of anachronism, minority domination theories are, at root, normative or even apocalyptic. Although Marx claimed that his study of historical development was ‘scientific’, his vision of ‘true democracy’ was fundamentally
An ill-founded hope for an apocalyptic revolutionary transformation that will lead us into the promised land of perfect freedom, self-realization, and full acceptance of the worth of all human beings. . . democracy would be possible only under conditions that have hitherto not existed in all of recorded history and may well be out of reach of human efforts in the foreseeable future. (pp. 279, 272).
The theories of Marx, Lenin and Gramsci were ‘instrumental to their ideological ends’ (p. 269). John Gray (2007) and Anthony O’Hear (2000) confirm this view of Marxism as a secularized form of Christian millennial eschatology. Although Pareto, Mosca and Michels were drawn to the opposite pole of the political spectrum, Dahl argues that they were a ‘response’ to Marxism (p. 269), aimed to weaken and discredit it as a political force (i.e. their motive was normative and rhetorical rather than descriptive). He also claims that Gramsci’s modification of Marxist theory was ‘clearly influenced’ by Mosca’s Elementi di scienza politica (p.366, n.12).
So why do ‘minority domination’ theorists (still the majority in political theory departments and the prevalent view on this blog) differ so markedly from their political science colleagues, for whom the median voter theorem is self-evidently true? In addition to the divergence between normative and empirical approaches to the study of politics, the theories are
presented at such a high level of generality that it is hard to determine what evidence could be brought to bear that would conclusively verify or disprove the central hypothesis of minority domination . . . an advocate’s commitment to a high-level theory is very likely to be far stronger than a rational decision would warrant [so] it would be fair to say that conceptual clarity and precision are not among the virtues of theories of minority domination. (p. 272)
In addition, and as marked in the critique of the Gilens/Page paper, the causal links are never specified whereby the minorities exercise their (alleged) control of the political process:
No theory or account contending that minority domination is a standard characteristic of countries governed by polyarchy has yet provided the evidence needed to verify the existence of such a chain of control. (p. 277)
The only mechanisms outlined are somewhat vague: ‘coercion’ (Marx/Lenin) or ‘social indoctrination, leading to false consciousness’ (Gramsci) (p. 274). More recently the hypothesized control factor has been wealth (Gilens and Page, 2014) but, given that the immediate currency of elections is votes rather than dollars, it is never explained exactly how the latter comes to trump the former in the minority of instances where the preferences of rich and median voters diverge. Correlation is not causation (especially when the level of statistical significance is marginal).
By contrast the chain of control in the median voter hypothesis is plain to see – votes are the immediate currency of electoral democracy so voters have ultimate control of political outcomes by obliging the competing oligarchies to reflect their preferences. Any party that fails to do this loses the election (or the next one), period.
Dahl, R. A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics.
Gray, John (2007), Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
O’Hear, Anthony (2000), After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward, London: Bloomsbury.
Waldron, J. (2013). Political political theory. Journal of Political Philosophy, 21(1), 1-23.
 Randomly-selected groups are no exception to this ‘important truth’, hence my claim that the speech acts of individual members will also lead to minority domination.