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

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374137649
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

James Miller is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche; Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977; and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.

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WHEN AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENTISTS speak of democracy today, they generally have in mind a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections, a system that also protects the human rights of all citizens, and one that adheres to a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures, memorialized in a written constitution, apply equally to all citizens.

By these criteria, the world's first democracy wasn't properly a democracy at all. At the zenith of its political glory in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Athens did not choose its government by holding elections, nor did it protect the human rights of its citizens, as it lacked any notion of such rights, nor were the fundamental powers of the Athenian polis enshrined in a comprehensive written document.

What Athens did have is a community in which every citizen was expected to participate directly in the political life of the city — and far more actively than in any known modern democracy. At the height of democracy in Athens, in the mid-fourth century, an assembly of citizens, open to all, met at least forty times a year. All political offices were held by ordinary citizens, selected by lot, and all legal judgments in the city's courts were reached by large juries of ordinary citizens, similarly selected. And all this happened in a comparatively large commercial city that dominated the eastern Mediterranean world for nearly two centuries.

Despite this apparently impressive record of accomplishments, most ancient authorities reviled democracy in Athens. Plato, perhaps the most widely admired writer in antiquity, and someone who lived under democratic rule in the fourth century, criticized the false beliefs that prevailed in a city governed by public opinion rather than true knowledge, and he deplored the "insolence, anarchy, wastefulness, and shamelessness" that the prevalence of false beliefs facilitated. The historian Thucydides, another citizen of democratic Athens, who chronicled the Peloponnesian War with Sparta that had begun in 431 and ended with the defeat of Athens in 404, essentially blamed the power of the ordinary people of Athens, and their susceptibility to manipulation by mendacious orators, for this catastrophic outcome. As a result of critics like Plato and Thucydides — not to mention subsequent political developments, from the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great to modern European monarchies that claimed absolute sovereignty as a divine right — nobody much cared about the Athenian political system for almost two thousand years, nor about democracy as a form of government.

In the centuries between the rise of Rome and the fall of the Bastille, the world's first democracy was left largely unexamined, and possible justifications for it were rarely considered. Even in contexts where the idea still circulated, among trained jurists and experts in political philosophy, democracy was normally disparaged as the worst of the simple forms of government, inferior to both monarchy and aristocracy. It was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and the United States that a sweeping reevaluation of ancient democracy took place — helping to transform the main currents of political thought and institutional development, first in the West, and then around the world.

The reevaluation of Greek democracy continues. As a result of recent research and ongoing discoveries of previously lost documents, most notably a detailed description of Athenian political institutions likely compiled by Aristotle and his students, and unearthed in Egypt only in 1879, scholars today know much more than Plato or Thucydides conveyed about the nature of the various democratic institutions of Athens — including how radical their implications really were.

Modern scholars have also skillfully interpreted the surviving texts of Athenian orators, which contain idealizing paeans to democracy, if not a systematic political philosophy. Thus Demosthenes, perhaps the most famous Athenian orator, praised his city's democratic way of life for its "spirit of compassion for the helpless, and of resistance to the intimidation of the strong and powerful; it does not inspire brutal treatment of the populace," nor does it encourage "subservience to the rulers of the day."

* * *

ATHENS WAS ONE of roughly one thousand Greek-speaking political units, towns scattered in the countryside and along the coasts of the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas, "like frogs around a pond," as Plato put it. The territory of Athens was roughly the size of the modern American state of Rhode Island. It was the most populous polis in ancient Greece. Though the exact number of total residents, including slaves, foreigners, women, and children, is impossible to determine, and fluctuated dramatically over time, experts estimate that there were perhaps as many as sixty thousand citizens in 431 B.C., and about thirty thousand a century later — and that the number of adult male citizens represented around a tenth of the entire population of Attica. The majority of these people resided in rural inland villages; the rest lived either in the port of Piraeus or in the urban center of Athens, the two most thickly settled regions.

Democracy made its surprising appearance in Athens in an archaic context where some neighboring civilizations (such as Persia) had a king ruling over a relatively large realm, and where most of the smaller Greek-speaking city- states were ruled either by monarchs claiming divine sanction; by secular tyrants ruling by brute force; or by a small group of nobles or rich citizens — an "aristocracy," as Greeks called it if this elite was civic-minded, or an "oligarchy," if it was merely self-interested.

Insofar as ordinary citizens (the demos) had a role to play in the archaic polis, it was by acknowledging the authority of their leaders, sometimes (as in Homer) simply by shouting their collective approval in public assemblies before a crucial battle. The earliest forms of popular participation in Greece seem to have been plebiscitary — citizens acclaimed or formally elected a leader, but the leader, having secured popular approval, was then free to exercise power as he saw fit.

According to the pioneering fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus, who is one of our main sources for what little we know about these things, Athens took its first steps toward more robust forms of self-government under the leadership of Solon, who served as an archon or city magistrate in 594/3 B.C. He was legendary for enhancing the power of the city's ordinary citizens, abolishing the practice of debt slavery — and then renouncing power, leaving the city for ten years, thus abjuring the customary spoils of high office.

Solon's reforms were not universally popular. In the decades that followed, Athens was in frequent turmoil, mainly caused by feuds between rival dynastic families with clashing political programs. A period of relative stability began in the middle of the sixth century, when a war hero named Peisistratus seized power and established a tyranny, with the support of most poor Athenians. By levying taxes on wealthier citizens, the tyrant was able to embark on an ambitious public works program, erecting new monuments and buildings, and also devoting public funds to supporting a variety of religious cults and civic festivals. After his death in 527, the tyranny survived for another generation until Cleisthenes, a scion of the powerful Alcmaeonid family, rose to political prominence in 510.

* * *

A NOBLEMAN of uncommon ability, Cleisthenes was ruthless, wily — and blessed with a bold political imagination. Banished as a child along with other members of his extended family because of their ongoing resistance to the rule of Peisistratus, he came of age in Delphi, the site of the Temple of Apollo and the seat of the Pythia, the high priestess regarded as the vessel of Apollo and the oracle most widely consulted in the ancient Greek world. While residing there, the Alcmaeonids won a contract to rebuild the Delphic temple. In a shrewd act of philanthropy, Cleisthenes convinced his kinsmen to pay for extraordinarily fine marble columns for the new temple façade out of the family coffers. Their generous gift put Delphi in the family's debt. Shortly afterward, Cleisthenes personally intervened with the Pythia. He arranged for the oracle to advise Sparta to topple Athens's tyrant, and so free the city from the iron grip of his family's enemies. Schemes like this were typical in archaic Greece.

As a result, a large army of Spartans led by their king in 510 B.C. succeeded in toppling the Athenian tyrant Hippias, triggering several years of elite infighting in Athens. By then, the growing mobilization of popular support by Athenian political rivals had unleashed what one historian speculates was a gradual "process of steady expansion of political equality," from "the narrow circle of only the noble" to the broader ranks of wealthy citizens, who in turn sought increasingly explicit support from the poorer citizenry.

It was apparently in this charged context that sharp conflict erupted over whether or not to define the Athenians as a people with the collective capacity to exercise political power directly. In 508, Cleomenes, an oligarch who hoped to reverse the growing power of poorer Athenians, outmaneuvered Cleisthenes to become archon — the city's highest civilian official in those days.

Contesting that result, Cleisthenes began to mobilize popular support, in part by publicizing an elaborate program of political reforms, meant to give more power to ordinary citizens. His enemies in turn asked the Spartans to return to Athens, this time to drive Cleisthenes and his allies into exile, to install their army on the Acropolis, and to ensure by force that an oligarch and his allies would be able to rule Athens at will, as an ally of Sparta. Once again, Athens seemed on the verge of spiraling into violence and civil war.

Before the arrival in Athens of King Cleomenes's troops, Cleisthenes and his family and elite followers decamped, as anticipated.

But what happened next came as a shock. Instead of acquiescing in the foreign occupation, the ordinary citizens of Athens, as if spontaneously, converged on the Acropolis and surrounded the Spartan army, laying siege to the citadel. It took only three days to drive the Spartans from the city — an outcome that suggests the popular uprising had numbers and force on its side.

Though there is no scholarly consensus on the significance of this event, one modern historian, Josiah Ober, does not shrink from comparing the Athenian uprising of 508 to the storming of the Bastille that would launch the French Revolution in 1789. The result in Athens, according to Ober, was also a "revolution," in the modern sense of a new beginning, a political upheaval that inaugurates a radically new political order.

* * *

"ALTHOUGH ATHENS had been a great city before," writes Herodotus, "it became even greater once rid of its tyrants." Summoned back to Athens after the people had repulsed the Spartans, Cleisthenes turned to the Assembly, or Ekklesia, derived from the Greek word meaning "to summon," because citizens were summoned to meetings by a trumpeter or herald. Under the tyrants, the Ekklesia had been an essentially passive body, but Cleisthenes sought to invigorate it in order to authorize his ambitious plans for reforming the city's institutions. Henceforth all new legislation in Athens had to be validated in the Assembly, which was now open to all citizens, no matter how poor. (At the time, the Athenian citizenry consisted of free-born males over the age of twenty-one with a native Athenian father.) An amphitheater was built for the Assembly, a meeting place called the Pnyx, situated on a rocky slope in central Athens.

In the most audacious aspect of his reform program, Cleisthenes entirely reorganized the body politic. Athens's traditional kinship groupings had long given de facto political power to a few wealthy families who worshipped a divine ancestor and controlled the relevant priestly offices. Cleisthenes set out to undermine this system by creating an entirely new set of ten civic "tribes." He assigned each a new eponymous hero to worship and stipulated that its members would be drawn from each of the three broad subregions of Attica: the shore, the plain, and the uplands. Membership in a tribe was now determined more or less arbitrarily, instead of by birth or physical proximity.

One result of this new organization was to bring much closer together hitherto quite separated areas of the polis, and also to break up the regional power bases that had driven political conflict in recent decades. Another result was the creation of a new civic religion that enabled all citizens, not just the members of dynastic families, to join in the worship of a heroic ancestor, and to share in the organization of worship.

The newly empowered Assembly would be steered by an expanded Council of 500, with each tribe providing fifty members. Any citizen over the age of thirty was eligible to serve. Councillors had to take an oath and submit to preliminary review and then a final audit, as a check against wrongdoing. Infantry troops were similarly organized into tribal regiments — and "one of the first things that most forcibly struck outside observers about post- Cleisthenic Athens was how much more militarily successful it quite suddenly became."

At the same time, Cleisthenes laid a new stress on broadly based civic festivals. These events helped to knit the new civil order together symbolically, by periodically convening a very large group of people — citizens, but also women, resident aliens, even visitors from other cities — in public rituals that dramatized the new civic virtues of isonomia (equality under the law), isegoria (equal ability to speak in public), and isokratia (equal power).

The most important of these festivals had become the City Dionysia, celebrated annually in Athens for five days at the end of March. The Dionysia climaxed with public performances of dithyrambs (choral hymns dedicated to Dionysus), tragedies, and comedies, with the poets and their elite patrons competing for prizes.

According to the myth behind the festival, a certain Pegasos of Eleutherai in the distant past had brought to the nearby city of Athens a statue of Dionysus, the most volatile of the Greek gods, associated with the cult of the bacchae, female worshippers of the god and participants in the ritual bacchanalia. The Athenians, however, failed to honor the god's statue appropriately. Angered by their effrontery, Dionysus cursed the Athenian men with a chronic genital affliction that could be relieved, according to an oracle, only by expiating the affront through an appropriate ritual observance.

As it evolved in Athens, a central role in the festival's ritual atonement of the city's guilt came to be played by its ephebes, young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty, who were sufficiently wealthy to afford armor and who were undergoing mandatory military training to become hoplites, the armed infantrymen who had long formed the backbone of the city's military forces. Each City Dionysia opened with a reenactment by the ephebes of the advent of Dionysus. The proceeding included a sacrifice at a hearth altar and a torchlight procession bearing the statue of Dionysus to an amphitheater on the south slope of the Acropolis. A parade the next day was even more lavish. Priests and honored participants carried a variety of offerings to the god: carved phalluses, bowls, loaves of bread, and other objects of religious significance. Ephebes marched in military formation as acolytes of the god, blurring the lines between defending the city by armed force, attending a civic festival, and participating in a religious ritual. Upon arrival at a sacred district next to the amphitheater, a number of animals were sacrificed, and other, bloodless offerings were made.

* * *

WITHIN THE THEATER during the Dionysia, seating was set aside for the ephebes, a reminder of the critical role played by its soldiers throughout Athens's history. But the best view was reserved for the Council of 500, seated by tribes. This arrangement underlined the paramount role that ordinary citizens now played in civic affairs, as a result of perhaps the most critical of all the innovations commonly credited to Cleisthenes: namely, his introduction of an annual drawing of lots to determine who would serve that year on the Council. This was a striking departure from the previous practice of selecting political officials by letting prominent men of noble birth (like Cleisthenes) vie for popular support with help from their networks of wealthy friends and clients.


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Table of Contents


The riddle posed, and some answers explored, in five historical essays

The strangeness of Greek democracy ||| Solon sets Athens on a path toward aristocratic self-rule ||| the Athenian uprising of 508 B.C. ||| Cleisthenes extends political power to ordinary citizens ||| the use of political lotteries, rather than elections, to select officers in Athens ||| the first appearance of the word demokratia ||| excluding others: Athenian autochthony ||| Pericles as exemplary demagogue ||| Thucydides describes the Athenian democracy at war ||| Plato’s critique of democracy: knowledge vs. opinion ||| the resilience of Athenian democracy, and Hannah Arendt’s idealized view of it ||| how Athenian democracy actually worked in the fourth century B.C. ||| classical democracy in decay and eclipse ||| the sublime value of unity, and the martial virtues as constitutive of the ideal democratic citizen

Radical democrats seize power in Paris ||| Republican thought, from Polybius to Rousseau ||| the French Revolution, from the fall of the Bastille to the fall of the monarchy ||| the journée of August 10, 1792 ||| a carnival of atrocities ||| first calls for a democratic constitution ||| Condorcet in the French Convention ||| drafting the world’s first democratic constitution ||| Robespierre, Marat, and the debate over Condorcet’s democratic constitution ||| the Terror, and fresh doubts about the wisdom of direct democracy ||| the appearance of a new idea, “representative democracy” ||| the retreat of democratic ideals in France ||| the human toll

American distrust of popular passions; the tempering influence of commerce in eighteenth-century America ||| 1776: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence ||| the ambiguous place of democracy in America during the revolutionary era ||| modern democracy from France to America: the democratic-republican societies of the 1790s ||| the American dream of a commercial democracy ||| America’s first great demagogue, Andrew Jackson ||| Tocqueville celebrates the Fourth of July in Albany, New York, 1831 ||| Tocqueville on democracy as an egalitarian form of life ||| the strange insurrection over the right to vote in Rhode Island, 1842 ||| Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the American struggle over the franchise ||| demotic culture in America: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, minstrelsy ||| Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and the fantasy of a democracy still to come

The Chartists and the London Democratic Association; the first Chartist Convention and first Chartist petition, 1839 ||| Karl Marx’s ambivalence about democracy; communism as the realization of individual freedom and social equality ||| conflict as the paradoxical essence of nascent modern democratic societies ||| Mazzini and his democratic faith in cosmopolitan nationalism ||| the Paris Commune of 1871 ||| the Commune as revolutionary icon ||| the rise of mass political parties; the case of the German Social Democratic Party ||| the Russian general strike of 1905 and the St. Petersburg soviet ||| Rosa Luxemburg on revolutionary self-government ||| Robert Michels and Max Weber debate democracy vs. domination as the key categories for modern social thought; the “iron law of oligarchy” ||| disenchanted democracy at the dawn of the twentieth century

What Woodrow Wilson meant by democracy in proposing a world “made safe for democracy”; his 1885 manuscript “The Modern Democratic State” ||| Wilson as president; the Great War as a crusade to promote liberal democracy ||| Russia in revolution ||| the improvisatory democracy of the Petrograd soviet ||| Lenin and the Bolsheviks seize power through Russia’s soviets ||| existential conflict over the meaning of democracy: Wilsonian liberalism vs.
Leninist communism; the Versailles Peace Treaty and the League of Nations ||| the Guild Socialism of G.D.H. Cole: a vision of democratic socialism for an industrial society ||| Walter Lippmann on the psychological limits to an informed public ||| John Dewey and the persistence of the democratic faith ||| Edward Bernays and the value of propaganda ||| George Gallup and the rise of survey research and public opinion polling ||| Joseph Schumpeter on democracy as “rule of the politician” ||| the cruel game of modern politics: sham democracies vs. democracy as a universal ideal, solemnized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948

Manhattan, January 2017, protesting the election of Donald Trump: “This is what democracy looks like”; but a democratic process also elected President Trump ||| when President Barack Obama said, “That’s not who we are,” who are “we”? ||| “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide” ||| global democratization from an elite perspective: the life and times of Samuel P. Huntington ||| “Democracy is in the streets”: the return of participatory democracy in 2011; Occupy Wall Street ||| problems with the direct democratic program of the postwar global left ||| protecting pluralism in a framework of liberal rights the only viable approach to realizing a modern democracy ||| Condoleezza Rice keeps the American faith: exporting democracy at gunpoint ||| measuring the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide as a form of government: the Freedom House index, The Economist’s Democracy Index, and the United Nations Human Development Index ||| challenges to democracy today as an ideology and ideal ||| Václav Havel on the dangers of political demoralization faced with the challenges of self-government ||| upholding Abraham Lincoln’s conception of democratic hope


Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss the book’s title: can democracy work? As you learned about democracy’s history, did you become more or less confident in the will of the people?

2. Should compulsory government service with selection by lottery—or any other aspects of the Athenian Assembly (Ekklesia)—be adopted by the United States? Should we revise the qualifications for becoming a legislator, judge, or juror?

3. How did you react to the “democratic” movements that restricted political power to property-owning white men? What did societies lose—culturally and intellectually—by suppressing the voices of women, slaves, and those who lived in poverty?

4. On page 72, the historian Simon Schama is quoted as saying, “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy.” Do you agree? Was the Jacobin Reign of Terror the inevitable price for freeing France from monarchy? What determines whether military forces protect or abuse the powerless?

5. Which is less dangerous: direct democracy or indirect representation? Should the Electoral College be abolished in the United States?

6. From the oracle at Delphi to the U.S. Constitution, how has religion influenced the evolution of democracy?

7. As the architect of the first democratic constitution, Condorcet proposed a complex network of public assemblies in which every citizen would have “the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason, to preserve his mind free from prejudice” (page 200). What does it take to ensure that citizens are knowledgeable and reasonable?

8. The book illustrates the widely varying definitions of democracy, evolving from a radical Athenian regulatory body to Madison’s tempered republic and the Jeffersonian ideal that led self-made men like Andrew Jackson to rise to the highest office in the land. Now that you’ve read the saga of democracy, how do you personally define it? Do you think it can thrive among all populations of demos (ordinary citizens)?

9. The author calls the rise of the early American political party a normalizer, with elections becoming the cornerstone of our democracy. Does the rise of advertising and professionalized propaganda in the era of Edward Bernays, and the spread of social media a century later, threaten those cornerstones? Should journalists, political advertisers and publicists, and grassroots communicators all be held to the same legal standards when they publish their messages?

10. The Bolshevik orator Leon Trotsky and his followers advocated industrial democracy, and militant union activism was at the core of the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe at the turn of the last century. Was William Morris right to advocate a rejection of factories and a return to an artisanal approach to production? Are capitalism and industrialism at odds with democracy? Is socialism the best way to ensure that more of humanity will enjoy a better quality of life?

11. What were the primary forces that undermined Woodrow Wilson’s new world order for peace?

12. Which of the book’s lesser-known democracy movements, from the London Chartists (who idolized Robespierre) to the German insurrectionist Karl Schapper and Italy’s secret Carbonari network, were most interesting to you? What common incentives and vulnerabilities did these groups share?

13. As you read the coda, what recent experiences from your own community came to mind? Do you share Huntington’s eventual belief that democracy is fragile, with a cloudy future?

14. How does Can Democracy Work? enhance any previous books you’ve read by James Miller? What common threads are woven into the history of democracy and the rise of rock and roll (Flowers in the Dustbin) as well as 1960s youth activism (“Democracy Is in the Streets”)?

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