Bob Dahl and Yale Political Science: A Reflection

Authored By 
David Mayhew
Blog contributor 
Resident Faculty Fellow

When I came to Yale in 1968, the Political Science Department had a certain style, tone, and intellectual direction. Bob Dahl was the chief influence in it all.  He wasn’t the only influence:  Bob Lane, Ed Lindblom, and Herb Kaufman, the department’s other star figures now in their nineties, were formative too. But Dahl was chief among them.  

One aspect was the ethic of meritocracy. Neither Dahl nor the others headed a small empire of favor and dependency absorbing graduate students or junior faculty members. It wasn’t like some other institutions of that time. It was scary. There didn’t seem to be any patronage route to advancement. You needed to perform. 

Dahl was impartial and open-minded as they come, yet there were limits. Intellectually, he was tough. He was a major enemy of blather. I remember once he surprised me by flattening some outside speaker who was talking blather. Dahl wasn’t nasty about it, but he set his ordinary gentleness aside. 

I believe that World War II is one key to the nature of the department of those days. The senior members had all served in the war somehow. Dahl once told me about life as a soldier in the U.S. Army as it marched through Bavaria into Austria in 1945. Marching into Austria!  He was one of a small, not all that orderly gun-toting band that wasn’t meeting much resistance at that point, but who knew what was out there? They all just wanted to get home.

For political science, the war seems to have had a big effect on that generation’s minds. They were impatient. Get some real experience, see what’s out there, don’t hunker down in the libraries, was the message that Dahl and the others brought to the discipline. And they saw the world as a mess and a menace. It had been that during and between the wars and it was still that in the East. Dahl became the profession’s chief definer, examiner, and promoter of democracy. That was in reaction to the awful anti-democracies of his time. 

Somehow, the Yale department came to be organized around Dahl’s way of looking at democracy. It wasn’t segmented. In practice, comparative politics, American politics, and a share of political theory were sort of blended. There wasn’t any official field of American politics as of 1970.  Western Europe, Japan, the Commonwealth settler countries, and the United States co-existed in one geographic field. Graduate students and visiting professors from Europe abounded. I remember Stein Rokkan and Vanni Sartori. This was in Dahl’s phase of comparative work when he was writing Polyarchy. 

As for tone and style, the department of that time, which was small, operated pretty much by consensus after deliberation. There weren’t any major cleavages. If the senior members agreed, which they ordinarily did, that was it. Often at a meeting Bob Dahl would listen, reflect, and step in with a decisive summary statement: “Well, that’s what we should do.”

A word about location. These days, shiny new Rosenkranz Hall on Prospect Street is the headquarters of the department, with some members having their offices in Luce Hall or the ISPS complex trailing down that street toward the main campus. Before that, many will remember, ancient Brewster Hall on the other side of Prospect, now demolished to make way for the two new residential colleges, was the department’s center.  Dahl had a wonderful office in Brewster. But back in 1970, Prospect Street was not yet in the picture. The department was centered in the HGS building on York Street, with many individual offices scattered elsewhere.   

I wasn’t close to Dahl in those early days—he was an awesome presence—but later I became close. We clicked. We schmoozed. We had countless lunches, including many with new junior faculty members at Mory’s. We played a lot of tennis. Constant as the speed of light was Bob’s victory record. He was a competitor!  I don’t think I ever beat him. And we became dear friends.

David Mayhew is Sterling Professor of Political Science and Resident Faculty Fellow at ISPS.