Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller

The question in the title implies that democracy hardly ever works as it’s supposed to. That is one of the author’s conclusions. Another is that, even though the trend toward more democracy in the world has reversed in recent years, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The book begins with chapters on the ups and downs of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, and America between the revolution and the Civil War. Next there are two chapters that summarize developments in Europe, America and Russia, including the Chartist working class movement in Britain; the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s academic writings on government and his efforts to make the world “safe for democracy” receive special attention, as do public opinion polls and the practitioners of “public relations”. The final chapter deals with recent events, beginning with the election of our current president and the mass demonstrations that immediately followed his inauguration. It concludes with an examination of “the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide”.

Throughout the book, Miller analyzes the tension between democratic ideals and the reality of governing a population that couldn’t fit into a traditional New England meeting house. How should the “will of the people” be discovered? How much leeway should the people’s representatives and other government officials have, since the voters cannot and should not make every decision? Miller also points out that there is much more to democracy than simply counting votes. A free press is necessary, for example. So is the right to a decent education. Given the complexity of the modern world, the absurdly unequal distribution of wealth, the amount of secrecy governments practice, and the manipulation and disinformation we are all subjected to, nobody should be surprised that democracy often seems inadequate to the role it’s supposed to perform.

I’ll finish with two quotations from the book that are especially relevant to our current situation.

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington “analyzed what he took to be the long-term implications of demographic and cultural trends on America’s sense of national identity”. He argued that “one very plausible reaction” to the declining “hold of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men on the levers of political power” would be:

the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past [and] have enough in common to be brought together under the label “white nativism” [224-225].

The second quotation is from Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and eventual president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writing in 1991:

“I am convinced,” Havel remarked, “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is … humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. The best laws and best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights — anything, in short, for which they were intended — if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values”. And here Havel is insistent: “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence” [243].

Or a substantial minority of white nativists could use supposedly democratic procedures to elect a person who never places common interests above his own and is blatantly contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law.