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On Democracy (Yale Nota Bene)


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What is really meant by the term "democracy"? How did democracy come about? What characteristics must a polity possess in order to be properly dubbed democratic? What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy? What are some challenges facing democracies in the 21st century? In this thorough but concise handbook by one of America's foremost political scientists, Yale professor Dahl (Democracy and Its Critics) answers these and other questions. The book is a highly structured work organized around subtopics on the origins of democracy, the democratic idea, actual democracies and conditions that favor or impede the development of democracy. Dahl discusses the tension between citizen participation and system effectiveness, the relative strengths and weaknesses of presidential versus parliamentary systems. Some of the best sections address the tension that exists in societies (e.g., the U.S.) where a democratic system based on political equality coexists with market capitalism, which yields economic inequality. Especially helpful are short "words about words" segments in which Dahl defines and clarifies terminology that is often used imprecisely (e.g., republic, representative, plurality system, etc.). Dahl's primary concern is the intersection between theory and practice, but his work is peppered with historical references to such advocates and critics of democracy as Plato, John Stuart Mill and James Madison. Dahl nimbly sketches the various issues and neatly frames controversies for the reader. His accessible style makes this an excellent introduction for novices, as well as a trusty handbook for experts and political science mavens. (Jan.)

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