A new history of the world’s most embattled idea
Today, democracy is the world’s only broadly accepted political system, and yet it has become synonymous with disappointment and crisis. How did it come to this? In Can Democracy Work? James Miller, the author of the classic history of 1960s protest Democracy Is in the Streets, offers a lively, surprising, and urgent history of the democratic idea from its first stirrings to the present. As he shows, democracy has always been rife with inner tensions. The ancient Greeks preferred to choose leaders by lottery and regarded elections as inherently corrupt and undemocratic. The French revolutionaries sought to incarnate the popular will, but many of them came to see the people as the enemy. And in the United States, the franchise would be extended to some even as it was taken from others. Amid the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, communists, liberals, and nationalists all sought to claim the ideals of democracy for themselves—even as they manifestly failed to realize them.
Ranging from the theaters of Athens to the tents of Occupy Wall Street, Can Democracy Work? is an entertaining and insightful guide to our most cherished—and vexed—ideal.
Government by the people exercising power themselves without delegating it to representatives or administrators remains a conflicted, elusive goal, according to this incisive study of direct democracy. Politics professor Miller (Examined Lives) explores examples of direct and participatory democracy: ancient Athens, where 60,000 citizens assembled regularly to vote on law, policy, and war, and random people were appointed to government offices by lottery; the French Revolution, when Parisian neighborhood assemblies overthrew the national legislature; the rise of America's Jacksonian democracy, granting the vote to all white men; the Russian Revolution, when local soviets of workers and soldiers became a rival government; and Occupy Wall Street's experiment in all-inclusive consensus decision-making. Drawing on political thought from Aristotle to Rousseau to Walter Lipmann, Miller cogently identifies both the strengths of direct democracy (challenging unresponsive representative government and propelling change) and its weaknesses: instability and violence, vulnerability to demagogues, the difficulty of telling what a divided people really want, the need for specialist legislators and bureaucrats in a complex modern society, and a legacy of "destructive and illiberal totalitarian democracy." Miller's engaging, thoughtful exploration of some of history's most dramatic episodes illuminates the ongoing discontent with flawed systems of self-rule.