Is Democracy Necessarily Good?

A new book asks hard questions about the democratic ideal and the reality.

An American flag.

For the first time in a very long time, a large number of Americans has started to debate—and worry about—whether American democracy is going to survive. But Americans, like most people, have their own specific idea of what democracy means, based in large part on our own distinct history. In his new book, Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller examines how people have thought about democracy over time and across the world. He views democracy as “inherently unstable” and the American faith in its success as somewhat ahistorical. But does this really mean, I wondered while reading the book, that the cure for an ailing democracy is not, in fact, more democracy?

I recently spoke by phone with Miller, who is also a professor of politics at the New School for Social Research. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how the Trump era is changing the American conception of democracy, what we can learn from the French Revolution, and why the internet is just like the printing press—and why that might not be good for democracy.

Isaac Chotiner: It seems to me that your question—can democracy work?—is really two separate questions. One is whether the will of the people expressed in some pure form will inevitably lead to dictatorial or bad outcomes. The second is whether democracy can ever be expressed—whether we can ever have a fair society, with everyone voting, etc., and with the will of the people actually being expressed.

James Miller: The reason I wrote my book is that it’s not entirely clear how we’ve gotten into a position where every regime around the world virtually claims to be some form of democracy, whereas for 2000 years, democracy was a reviled form of government. To even begin to answer your question, it’s necessary to ask what form of democracy we are actually talking about here. In the case of ancient Athens, one of the ways that Athenian democracy was rendered functional was the rise of orators that were popular with the demos, and literally they were demagogues. They could persuade the people and lead them. The quality of these orators varied. Pericles is often cited as a very noble and virtuous leader. There were other mendacious kinds of demagogues in ancient Athens.

But in Athens, the way “the people” was defined was so narrow and so exclusionary. You had to have both parents who had been born in the city itself. Out of a population of maybe 200,000, only 30,000 were citizens, but the citizens who were participants, they were men, not slaves and not aliens. Because they were a very tiny number, they were able to see themselves as a kind of chosen people. They were paid to participate in assemblies and on juries. I think it’s important to recognize that the world’s first democracy was exclusionary and nativist, and it worked for 200 years. It did not produce dictators. The reason that eventually Athens collapsed has to do with Macedonia and the empire of Alexander the Great.

[Then] democracy really disappears for a long time as a word and as an ideal that can be spoken of without hedging your rhetoric. When it reappears, it’s during the French Revolution. In the French Revolution, you have a very complicated specific situation in which a team is in league in part with other monarchs in Europe and is tacitly trying to undermine a constitutional monarchy, which leads to the creation of a great deal of democratic mobilization in the city of Paris, which sets the stage for a constitutional convention, in which [you get] the world’s first, in my view, democratic constitution. Ancient Athens didn’t have constitutions. The constitution itself is never actually implemented because there’s a seizure of power by Robespierre and his friends, which leads to a Reign of Terror.

The standard trope that radical democracy leads to tyranny has its warrant in the actual events of the French Revolution. Lenin was obsessed with not suffering the same fate as Robespierre. The way to not suffer the same fate is to consolidate ironclad power and kill your enemies in ways that Robespierre did not do. There’s a tradition of that being the moral that you took from the French Revolution. The multitudinous forms of democracy on display in the modern world have their antecedents in this kind of key moment. They’re different responses to what you do about the obvious potential that in the right circumstances, democracy could produce a tyranny, because it did, and it has subsequently.

Right, but this gets confusing because you could say that if a tyranny develops, then by definition that is ignoring or going against democracy rather than the expression of democracy getting out of hand, and that a real democracy can’t get out of hand because democracy is about these things that are the opposite of tyranny.

Here I lean on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who understood the paradox this way. He thought the only legitimate government was one in which the people were sovereign. In my view, that is the modern definition of democracy. Here’s the paradox: How do you institutionalize that? How do you know they’re really sovereign and who gets to be “the people” in any given circumstance? A sovereign people, however they’re defined, could as a matter of choice create a government that is a government of natural aristocrats or an elite.

In other words, one could imagine a sovereign people endorsing a government of checks and balances like that in the United States. One could imagine that in certain circumstances a sovereign people might vest emergency powers in a small group. The original meaning of dictatorship in the ancient context was that. One can also imagine that a sovereign people might actually feel that the most efficient way to meet an emergency would be by vesting supreme power in one great leader. If the people are truly sovereign, they can decide any form of government they want. That’s the profound meaning of democracy. There’s nothing that guarantees that democracy will produce liberty or liberal outcomes. There is nothing that guarantees that a sovereign people would respect human rights as we call them today. Nothing.

It seems to me that this goes against an underlying idea most Americans have. It’s true that the people could all vote for a fascist. It’s true that Vladimir Putin can have 80 percent approval ratings, even though we do not consider Vladimir Putin a democrat. But I think most Americans would say, “You know what? If you have a free press, if you have a civil society, if you have real access to the vote for everyone, including ethnic or religious minorities, it’s unlikely those things are going to happen.” This is maybe changing in the past couple years because we’re all shaken up by what’s going on, but I think Americans have a sense of, oh, if Russians actually had access to good sources of information and they understood what was going on and all these things, then someone like Putin would be less likely to rise. Don’t you think that’s an underlying optimism of liberal democracy, and do you think that’s changed?

Well, first of all, I think that you very crisply summarized the beliefs that were instilled in me growing up and that most Americans believe, and they believe so profoundly that it’s very, very hard for Americans to understand that democracy has taken different forms.

There’s a tendency, which I certainly feel I was taught, to tie up democracy and truth and goodness in a very tidy package. John Dewey, as a democratic theorist, is guilty of this. It’s bred a certain complacency. I believed that we invented democracy, and we had the best democracy in the world. It was only when I became more directly involved in dissenting politics and became a historian and a theorist of democracy that I saw that that wasn’t the case.

I think that what’s happening now is that some of the [bad things], in terms of the evolution of modern putatively self-governing societies that were taken in Europe, including in the last 100 years, that were unthinkable in the United States for the reasons you’ve explained. It now seems like, Whoa, that might actually happen in the United States.

I’ve noticed this with things like freedom of speech. Twenty years ago when I was growing up, I can remember people saying things like, In the marketplace of ideas, you have good ideas and you have bad ideas, and you talk about them, and together you end up with the best democratic solution or the right idea.


Whereas now, of course, everyone is terrified of bad ideas, whether it’s a fake news story going viral on Facebook or whatever. No one thinks, Oh, you throw all the good and the bad together, and democracy is coming out with the best possible solution. We’re all terrified.

Right. I also think that the whole idea of the marketplace of ideas, I just think there are a number of changes that have occurred in the last 20 years. One of them is the challenge posed by mass migration in various parts of the globe. Also, I think a factor is the appearance of the internet, in that it has been a disruptive technology that should be compared to the invention of the printing press. The printing press enabled the glories of humanism, but it also very quickly devolved into facilitating the Protestant Reformation, the pamphlets of Luther, and essentially produced 200 years of absolutely bloody religious warfare.

OK, so we’re both saying that we need to be real about what all this means, that democracy isn’t always peaches and cream or whatever the saying is. But you can also say, Hey, Trump won with a minority of the votes. He won because of the Electoral College. Part of the reason he’s winning is because money and bad information are distorting politics. You could still make the argument that in fact what we need is more democracy.

When I was younger, I thought the great panacea solution to sham democracy was more democracy. That conclusion is no longer clear to me. I think it’s much more complicated. It’s much more complicated because of institutional questions of scale involving political parties, nation states, transnational organizations, but also and at least as importantly, psychological problems of human beings and how much complex information they can digest in a way that facilitates them coming to some kind of reasonable political judgment.

I think that making [your] argument with some acknowledgement of what the true challenges are is helpful. In a way, the most important thing to do in the next [month] is kind of simple, which is: People who often are very cynical or dubious about the power of their vote and whether or not it matters have to be persuaded to come out and actually vote. One of the things that produced Trump’s victory was that kind of apathy. Even in the kind of democracy we have in the United States, which in many ways I think is very strictly limited and could be made much better and more efficient if there were reforms to getting money out of politics, if the Electoral College were abandoned and so on and so forth: Just vote to start with, because there is this power, which has evolved, and we have it in the United States. If you step back and look at world history, almost no country on the face of the earth since 1750 has the ability that we in America actually have.

Right, although I guess you could spin the apathy around voting the other way and say this is actually the success of democracy, right? The reason some people are too lazy to vote is that they’re generally more or less happy with what’s going on, and that if you look at times where there’s an economic crisis like 2008, voter turnout goes up.

Well, that’s what I was taught by my political science professors. Apathy was a sign of a successful democracy. I never bought it, and I don’t buy it. I think that kind of argument in American political science is a byproduct of the fact that one of the peculiarities of the United States is we labor under a Constitution that was meant to be undemocratic and still is. People end up making excuses for some of the results of that.

Has your opinion of these subjects you’ve been writing about changed in the past couple of years?

Well, yes, I felt many of my hopes tempered. I feel sort of chastened. I think what’s happened with Brexit, with Trump, these are all things that happen in democratic societies. There’s a lot of turbulence. If you want a serene and stable form of government, I don’t think anybody should choose a democracy because it involves ordinary people getting involved and making political decisions in whatever specific form it takes in the modern world.

I suppose where I end up in the book is realizing that it’s something that Václav Havel said at the time when he was president. In a modern democratic society, one of the constant dangers is that people become demoralized by the challenges and the difficulties. Therefore, for anybody who still harbors hopes for the capacity of ordinary people to exercise more power and take more responsibility in public affairs, you at a certain point have to reassert as an article of faith that there is a kind of moral consonance that you have to act upon, that really there’s a great wellspring of decency and goodness in ordinary people. Really when the chips are down, you have to bring yourself back to that. I’m sorry that sounds a little corny, but that’s where I ended up.

Everything else you said is depressing, so you can end on corniness.

Thank you.