Robert Alan Dahl (December 17, 1915 – February 5, 2014)
was the Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1940. He was past president of the American Political Science Association. Dahl was sometimes described as "the dean of American political scientists". His research focused on the nature of democracy in actual institutions, such as American cities. His influential early books included A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), Who governs?: Democracy and power in an American city (1961) and Pluralist Democracy in the United States (1967) all presented pluralistic explanations of who rules in America, arguing that many competing groups shared power. He died in 2014, aged 98.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was involved in an academic disagreement with C. Wright Mills over the nature of politics in the United States. Mills held that America's governments are in the grasp of a unitary and demographically narrow power elite. Dahl responded that there are many different elites involved, who have to work both in contention and in compromise with one another. If this is not democracy in a populist sense, Dahl contended, it is at least polyarchy (or pluralism). In perhaps his best known work, Who Governs? (1961), he examines the power structures (both formal and informal) in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, as a case study, and finds that it supports this view.
From the late 1960s onwards, his conclusions were challenged by scholars such as G. William Domhoff and Charles E. Lindblom (a friend and colleague of Dahl).
In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) Dahl argued that the constitution is much less democratic than it ought to be given that its authors were operating from a position of "profound ignorance" about the future. However, he adds that there is little or nothing that can be done about this "short of some constitutional breakdown, which I neither foresee nor, certainly, wish for.