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A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World

by James Miller

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-374-13764-9
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The meaning of democracy has changed dramatically throughout history.

With autocratic leaders emerging in so-called democratic nations, Miller (Political Science/New School; Eminent Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, 2011, etc.) investigates the slippery term “democracy” and the “inherently unstable” democratic project. “If both North Korea and the United States consider themselves democratic,” writes the author, and if all manner of politicians claim “to embody the will of the people—then what, in practice, can the idea of democracy possibly mean?” In response to this vexing question, Miller offers an informative historical overview of democratic efforts, from ancient Greece to contemporary times, including revolutions in France (1792) and America (1776), 19th-century socialist uprisings in Europe, the early-20th-century revolution in Russia, and current populist movements. Although Athens has been acclaimed as the birthplace of democracy, the author counters that assumption: While a lottery system ensured wide participation in government, women and slaves were excluded; moreover, throughout Greece, most cities were aristocracies or oligarchies. Many revolutions enacted to promote democracy—the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the British Chartist movement—ended in defeat and bloodshed, tainting the idea of democracy as ill-advised, creating “a new kind of tyranny, a collective tyranny of the majority” who were largely uninformed and easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric. The term became “widely associated with the danger of mob rule” and anarchy. America’s Founding Fathers did not think of themselves as democrats, believing “the election of representatives to be preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy.” Not until the presidential campaign of 1800 did Thomas Jefferson bring the term democracy into political discourse, conflating its usage with “fealty to the Constitution.” Miller is hopeful that even if democracy is threatened by political propagandists disseminating lies and creating confusion, democratic ideals and liberal principles will persist as long as democracy functions “as a shared faith.”

A revealing examination of the successes and perils of popular participation in government.