'Can Democracy Work?' considers the perils and pitfalls of the institution across time

Author and academic James Miller examines the idea of democracy in five distinct moments throughout human history, and chronicles how vastly different each iteration has been.

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to our World By James Miller Farrar, Straus and Giroux 320 pp.

The rise of populist governments worldwide has left many across the political spectrum reeling with a stinky smell, that something is rotten in Denmark. For the defenders of liberal democracy, from the Wilsonian progressive to the Karl Rove neo-con, a certain sense of historical inevitability has been sidestepped. What exactly is Francis Fukuyama doing these days?

For one thing, we know what undergraduates at Yale are doing: studying history. For the class of 2019, it was the top major declared. And after the whirl-wind of the November 2016 elections there was a general trend to pull up, look around, and see how we got here.

One solution offered by James Miller in his recently published Can Democracy Work? is to examine the idea of democracy in five distinct moments throughout human history, and chronicles how vastly different each iteration has been. In a sometimes free-wheeling combination of historical non-fiction, political science, and personal mea culpa on the failing of the New Left – Mr. Miller meditates on the contingencies of political communities.

Even as he highlights the limits of what has been achieved or what may ever be achievable, he places a stress throughout on the importance of faith in a democratic culture even as its institutions break down. Miller, a professor of politics at the New School for Social Research, is shaped by the tumult of 60s radicalism.

A former card-carrying member of the Students for a Democratic Society and participant of the raucous protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Miller holds a reverence for various utopian dreams of participatory democracy, from Occupy Wall Street to the 1871 Paris Commune. But he is also informed by his decades of research and study after his youth activism, and demonstrates a sobriety and clear-sightedness when tackling the difficult dilemmas of tactics and social change.

The strength of this book lies not in its sometimes convoluted memoir nor in its occasionally boilerplate prose but rather in the exquisite portraits it paints of characters who stand behind the immortalized Pericles, Robespierre, and Thomas Jefferson: the strategic Cleisthenes, the tragic Condorcet, the wildly irreverent Edmund Genet.

“Years passed before I discovered that my textbook image of Pericles was not widely shared in antiquity, nor was my teacher’s admiration for Athenian democracy,” quips Miller early on. This realization or the spirit of it suffuses all that is good in the kaleidoscope of human agency presented here. It forces the reader to sit up and realize that history isn’t a definitive grayed parchment beyond reproach, but actually a living force constantly capable of new interpretation and meaning in our current world.

The way that modern nation states take epochal moments of human freedom – such as the Declaration of Independence or the storming of the Bastille and turn them into recycled mythologies – have made them stale and uni-dimensional. While certain descriptive feats by Miller lack in nuance or even plain energy, there are more that succeed. His most vivid interrogations center on Athenian democracy and the French Revolution precisely because the reader is presented with complex portraits of historical characters and the various reasons for why they failed and how antecedents of the original events survived.

Countering the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that the Athenian polis’ strength lay in lofty orators who guaranteed, “a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten,” Miller suggests in reality its foundation lay in the gears of jurors, councils, and practical committees. “Athens had ensured equality of political access for all its citizens by devising an astonishingly complex municipal government.” Miller highlights moments which illustrate the best in democratic spontaneity, such as the sparing of the Mytilenes from genocide in addition to the worst of mob role.

Plato’s recounting of Socrates’ death at the hands of an Athenian jury inspired a deep skepticism of democracy in the Western world for over a thousand years until it emerged in France in the 18th century. Along with the painted antidotes of time past, Miller gives us a crash course in some political science terminology. No, the United States was never a democracy but has been instead ever since its birth – a representative constitutional republic. It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election that the country got a first taste of populist demagoguery’s intoxicating brew.

Miller makes the forceful claim that the Trumpian moment is connected to Jacksonian democracy and other episodes in history because democracy has never been umbilicaly tied to liberalism – a new assumption that has existed for less than two generations. And while the book peters out with his hand-wringing on the failures of the protest movement Occupy Wall Street, he gives us a choice on how to move forward in our current moment.

“Whether democracy in America, or anyplace else, can flourish, either as a historically conditioned set of political institutions or as a moral vision, must remain, by the very logic of democracy, an open question.” Like the ekklesia in Athens, the constituent assembly in Versailles, and the soviet in Petrograd – "Can Democracy Work?" offers insightful context on how our own body politic will survive these turbulent times.

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