NEW YORK — Robert A. Dahl, a political scientist who was widely regarded as his profession’s most distinguished student of democratic government, died Wednesday in Hamden, Conn. He was 98.
His daughter Sarah Connor confirmed the death.
In 2002, The New Yorker said that Mr. Dahl was “about as covered with honors as a scholar can be” and quoted the Cornell scholar Theodore J. Lowi as calling him “the foremost political theorist of this generation.”
Mr. Dahl, who taught at Yale for 40 years, provided a definition of politics memorized by a generation of students: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.”
His definition of power also became a standard: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”
In two dozen books and hundreds of articles, Mr. Dahl wrote about foreign policy, Congress, welfare, the Constitution and more. He was an early proponent of using real-world data and empirical analysis in the study of politics, but did not shrink from making judgments on large issues.
“Over decades when political scientists focused on increasingly narrow and often technical questions, he’s the one person who brought everybody back to the big picture, the big questions,” James S. Fishkin, a professor of communications and political science at Stanford, said in an interview. “What is the form of democracy that will live up to democratic aspirations?”
Perhaps Mr. Dahl’s best-known work was amongf his earliest: “Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City” (1961), which examined the political workings of New Haven. In contrast to the view that power in American society was concentrated in a business elite, he depicted a multitude of groups competing for influence. “Instead of a single center of sovereign power,” he wrote, “there must be multiple centers of power, none of which is or can be wholly sovereign.”
New Haven, he contended, had experienced a historical progression from patrician rule to a more contested form of government in which political parties and candidates of different ethnic and economic backgrounds competed.
Mr. Dahl initially defended pluralistic competition as inherently democratic, but in later books he theorized that powerful, politically agile minorities could thwart the will of other minorities and, indeed, majorities.
He particularly feared that corporate managers could dictate the direction of their companies, often without reference to shareholders. He advocated giving outsiders, including government and interest groups such as consumer representatives, a greater role in corporate governance.
He also wrote that citizens in recent years have had less influence in the political process, even as they have demanded more of it. He pointed to growing economic inequality as a threat to the political process. And he criticized the Constitution as undemocratic, saying it disregarded population differences in guaranteeing at least one representative and only two senators to each state.
Mr. Dahl saw no way of changing this, because the Constitution specifically prohibits it. But he suggested reforms, such as term limits for senators and representatives and runoff elections so the winner of every race could claim a majority.
“He punctured our smug self-satisfaction that what we have is so great,” Fishkin said.
Robert Alan Dahl was born Dec. 17, 1915, in Inwood, Iowa, where his father was a doctor. When hard times made it impossible for many patients to pay their medical bills, the family moved to Skagway, Alaska, where a railroad had advertised for a doctor.
Robert worked on the railroad and as a longshoreman during the summers and became a socialist and union advocate. The experience helped inspire him to study the effects of political power on average people.
He attended the University of Washington because it was the closest university, then accepted a fellowship to do graduate work in political science at Yale.
After earning his doctorate, he worked for the Agriculture Department and two agencies handling wartime industrial production. He then relinquished his draft deferment and joined the Army as an infantryman. He fought in Europe and earned the Bronze Star with oak cluster.
After the war, he was assigned to an Army unit charged with “de-Nazifying” the German banking system. Not wanting to go back to being a bureaucrat, he returned to Yale, got a temporary job there and ended up staying until 1986, when he retired as the Sterling professor of political science and senior research scientist in sociology.
Mr. Dahl was chairman of the political science department from 1957 to 1962. In 1968, he led a committee that recommended that Yale become one of the first American universities to establish an undergraduate major in African-American culture. It did.
In 1972, he headed a committee that recommended that Yale’s four-year course of study be cut to three and that majors be abolished. Those proposals were rejected.
Mr. Dahl was president of the American Political Science Association in 1967. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He was a Guggenheim Fellow twice. In 1995, he was the first recipient of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, an award given by Uppsala University in Sweden to the scholar who has made the most valuable contribution to political science.
Mr. Dahl’s first wife, the former Mary Bartlett, died in 1970. In addition to his daughter, he is leaves his wife, the former Ann Sale; his daughters, Kirsten Dahl and Jane Thery; his sons, Eric and Christopher; and four grandchildren.
Another son, Peter, died before him.
Mr. Dahl readily conceded that most people are more interested in work, family, health, friendship, and recreation than they are in politics, much less political science.
“Politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life,” he wrote.