In This Review

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
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 320 pp.

Many people today worry that John Adams might have been onto something when he observed that “there has never been a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Miller tries to put these worries in perspective by tracing the tumultuous history of democracy from its ancient Athenian origins through the American and French Revolutions to the populist upheavals afoot today. What makes the book compelling is its focus on colorful thinkers, activists, and political leaders who lived and breathed the democratic moment throughout history, from Pericles and Socrates in ancient Athens to Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin in the early twentieth century. Miller shows that democracy’s ascent is best seen not as a gradual unfolding of a political principle driven by reason and moral destiny but rather as a grand roller coaster ride of struggle, revolution, and backlash. Today’s populist outbursts look quite ordinary alongside this history. Miller’s message is that democracy is not just a fixed set of governing institutions; it is, as the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville argued, a way of life. If democracy is to survive, the first imperative is to recognize its fragility and step forward and defend it.