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The Struggle for Democracy

New books explore the origins of an idea and consider its future

Aug. 23, 2016
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At a time when the meaning of democracy is being tested by demagogues and super-delegates in the U.S., a divisive referendum in the U.K. and the persistence of dictatorships abroad, a pair of books from Oxford University Press set out to unearth the origins and evolution of a world-changing idea. In Democracy: A Life, Cambridge history professor Paul Cartledge burrows deep into the archeology of politics in ancient Greece while relating his findings to the present day. Harvard’s James T. Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought explores the proliferation of democratic ideas that struggled to manifest themselves in 18th-century British, French and American societies.


Cartledge’s book is foremost a reminder that understanding the past is as controversial as grappling with the present. Historians are composers fashioning narratives from evidence that is often fragmentary, especially for earlier epochs. Honest historians are careful to understand their biases and not impose their concerns on the evidence, in other words, to let the facts speak before interpreting their meaning. Cartledge defines his terms strictly in dismissing recent claims that democracy is not a uniquely Greek invention but also developed in Asia and elsewhere. Democracy, he insists, is not a synonym for benevolent rule, religious tolerance, equality under the law or the obligation of a monarch to consult the upper class. It is rule by the people, as directly as possible, and he finds its origins only in ancient Greece.


But even there, democracy was a fragile flower, unequally distributed and scorned by that society’s finest minds. Socrates was convicted of capital crimes in a democratic process (a jury of 500 of his peers!). His intellectual descendants, Plato and (to a lesser extent) Aristotle, were skeptical of democracy and feared, not unreasonably, that it could fall into plutocracy (rule by the rich) or that democratic chaos could give rise to tyranny (dictatorship). Rome was a republic whose representative form of government was not a democracy in Cartledge’s meaning, and it was to Rome, not Athens, that America’s democratically skeptical founders turned. As Cartledge says, Washington D.C. has a Capitol Hill, not an Acropolis.


Kloppenberg understands democracy less as a particular form of government than as an “ethical ideal” that has assumed many forms and seeks to accommodate several often-contradictory values. In modern societies the “people” may rule in theory but are governed (as in ancient Rome) by others; the rights of one person may infringe on the rights of others; and there are “the inevitable tensions within the concept of equality.”


Acknowledging that the ancient Greeks planted the seed, Kloppenberg contends that democracy finally flourished in Judeo-Christian soil after the Enlightenment began to shine. Not unlike Cartledge, Kloppenberg braids minor key notes into his symphony of world-altering achievements. A common faith, even in something as basic as the common good, can no longer be counted on to sustain the democratic ideal. Democracy “depends on citizens interrogating their own preferences rather than taking for granted their legitimacy,” he concludes. Democracy requires restraint, a willingness to understand that one’s own preferences might not always be in the public interest.


Would white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan pose the same threat they do now if a mainstream Republican were president instead of Donald Trump?

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