Book Review — Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller is a history of democracy in its various forms throughout history. Miller Miller is an American writer and academic. He is known for writing about Michel Foucault, philosophy as a way of life, social movements, popular culture, intellectual history, eighteenth century to the present; radical social theory and history of political philosophy. He currently teaches at The New School.

Democracy* is a term that has been used for so long and in so many ways that it has lost its meaning. North Korea claims to be a Democratic People’s Republic. Russia is an authoritarian regime with superficial democratic fringe. Greece is the so-called cradle of democracy, but how democratic was it really? What percentage of the population were allowed to participate? Positions of authority at times were chosen by lot since elections were seen as corrupt. Even today, in America, elections are about money. LBJ was successful because of people in Congress who owed him favors. Political machines tainted American democracy.

America’s founding fathers were not in favor of democracy and looked to the Roman Republic as a source for stable government rather than Athens. The original federal government was small and did little compared to day’s government. Democratic types of government work best in small groups. In large groups mob rule and the tyranny of the majority are likely to take place. Divided government slows the actions of mob rule somewhat. Major events can still trigger rapid action. 9/11 triggered a piece of legislation called the Patriot Act. Legislators admitted not reading it before voting for it. This would not have happened without the act of terror. It created a type of “mob rule” or general will, as Rousseau would have called it, that bucked the system of government.

Miller also includes one of the maligned Western political thinkers, Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a republican and believed in representational government and more importantly, he believed in citizen militias. If the citizens had a stake in their government they would be willing to defend it. Inclusion into governing has been debated limited and expanded and limited again. White (or native) men who held land were usually given the right to vote. Sometimes military service was also a condiction. Does expanding the number of voters help or hinder the selection of a good leader. Would a larger pool of voters or a small pool of educated land-owning voters provide better results? That question still haunts the idea of democratic rule.

Leaders in France, England, and Russia are also looked at in the historic sense along with American leaders like Andrew Jackson. Our current president is a fan of Andrew Jackson and the two do have much in common.  Miller, in a well-cited work, discusses the history of democracy and its various forms in mainly in Athens, France, and the United States.  Many misconceptions and inaccuracies are cleared up as well as detailing the French revolutions.  Well written and extremely informative.


*Democracy used in its widest sense to include direct democracy and representational democracies. Likewise, small “r” republican is used to describe a supporter of a republic, representational democracy.


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