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The Best of Books 2017

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Democracy: A Case Study

In This Review

Democracy: A Case Study
By David A. Moss
Harvard University Press, 2017
742 pp.
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Throughout the United States’ history, Americans have had to deal with factionalism. In Democracy, Moss observes that charges of democratic dysfunction are “as old as the republic itself.” In fact, discord is to be expected: democracy does not function like a machine, with neatly humming checks and balances. It is “more like a living, breathing organism”—and a fragile one, at that, constantly prone to “fragmentation, breakdown and decay.” Americans, Moss argues, should not fear conflict but rather embrace it: handled properly, it permits the best ideas to win out, guards against the tyranny of the majority, and helps prevent special interest groups from gaining too much power. 

Moss makes this argument in his brilliant introductory and concluding chapters, while the core of the book consists of 19 cases from throughout U.S. history that exemplify the complexity of political conflict.

Moss, a professor at Harvard Business School, brings the case-study teaching method to history. He challenges readers to imagine themselves as participants in the historical cases he uses, to better understand the deliberative and decision-making skills necessary for self-governance. The cases span a wide range. Moss tells the story of the debate at the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, over James Madison’s proposal that Congress should have the power to veto state laws (the convention rejected the idea). He presents the decision Martin Luther King, Jr., faced in 1965: whether to defy a federal court order and lead some 2,000 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama (King decided to turn the marchers back; 12 days later, after a higher court lifted the order, they set out over the bridge to Montgomery). Moss presents each case in rich detail so that readers can grapple with the tough choices that the people at the time faced and decide how they themselves would have proceeded. Together, the cases convey that Americans today have inherited not only a set of governing institutions but also a tradition of conflict resolution that both relies on democratic norms and strengthens them through practice. Tensions are a constant throughout U.S. political history. The crucial question is whether citizens can resolve them constructively. Moss suggests that Americans have lost sight of what’s needed: a fundamental commitment to the democratic principles of self-government. Read the full review.