Can Democracy Work?

Can Democracy Work? is James Miller’s sequel to his book of thirty years ago, Democracy Is in the Streets. In the intervening years he seems to have become less certain of the answer. The earlier book had been a somewhat nostalgic view back at the radical students of the 1960’s from the sobering perspective of the Reagan years. Can Democracy Work? is a view back at the history of democracy from the equally sobering perspective of Trump’s America.

Miller begins his book by recounting his own engagement in 1967 with the Students for a Democratic Society. But: “As time has passed, I’ve had second thoughts about many of my old convictions, and I’ve tried to imbue my students with a skeptical outlook on their own political assumptions, no matter how fiercely held.” (p. 10) He has been asking himself, he adds, in particular: “What is living, and what is dead, in the modern democratic project? … For that matter, what is the modern democratic project? … And can it really work – especially in complex modern societies?” (Ibid.) With these questions in mind, Miller looks back at the history of democracy which he tells in a series of vividly recounted episodes.  By the end of his book it is obvious that he has not come up with answers. “As I contemplate what democracy has become in modern times, I find myself feeling uncertain about its future,” he writes “(1) as a name for various actually existing forms of government; (2) as an ideology, an ideal manipulated by a ruling elite in the material interests of a few, not the many; (3) as a moral vision, of free institutions as a better solution to the problems of human coexistence than the authoritarian alternatives.” (p. 240) Still, he feels committed to “a democratic faith that was instilled in me from birth… I find as a result that I harbor hopes that form part of who I take myself to be.” (p. 241) He ends by reminding us of “Abraham Lincoln’s characteristically American hope, especially in the darkest of times: ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,.” (p. 245) But given Miller’s forthright account of the terror, turbulence, and violence that has accompanied the history of democracy, and his bleak vision of the present, it isn’t clear on what he thinks this hope is based.

Miller is clear, however, on one point: that the democratic experiment of the radical students of the 1960s has failed. He is skeptical, therefore, also of the attempt to resurrect its ideals and practices fifty years later.  He argues, for that reason, against the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of 2011 and similar spontaneous political movements around the world. These movements, he writes, have pursued “an unstable political idealism, an amalgam of direct action and direct democracy, with many of the virtues of a utopian and romantic revolt … but also some of the vices.” (p. 229) Miller is particularly critical of these movements to pursue a leaderless, non-hierarchical form of direct democracy.  “Organizing without organizations,” he argues “is a fantasy – not a winning long-term political strategy.” A fantasy, we might add, that in Miller’s eyes also brought down the SDS.

Miller own views have, over time, come closer to those of the American political scholar Samuel Huntington. When he had first read Huntington, he writes: “I bristled at his hostility to the New Left and his skepticism about the value of participatory democracy.” (p. 217) Huntington’s analysis had been simple: “What ailed the country was an excess of democracy. America needed a new ‘balance,’ in which citizens would remember that in many situations ‘expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents may override the claims of democracy as a way of constituting authority.” (p. 218) Huntington had warned of the self-destructive potential of democracy. Miller adds: Such worries, which  seemed absurd to me as a young man, seemed eerily apt as I was writing this book – and discovering that my own views had grown closer to Huntington’s than I imagined possible.” (p 218)

Miller proves sympathetic also to Huntington’s final thought that America’s democratic faith is grounded in a conception of its own identity, an identity that is in danger of being undermined by demographic changes and the  threat of a reactive “white nativism.” Miller asks: If the Soviet version of democratic idealism has collapsed under the weight of a “renascent, religiously inflected form of Russian nationalism, why should Americans assume that their version of democratic idealism would prove any more resilient, if put to the test of white nativism?” And in what sounds like agreement, Miller concludes: “For Samuel P. Huntington at the end of his life, this is what American democracy looked like: a fragile ideology, with cloudy prospects.” (p. 226)

There is little that Miller can tell us about the road ahead. If democracy fails, what then? What possibilities arise at that point? Will we face political chaos? Or autocratic and bureaucratic order? Can we think of more or less desirable forms of political order ahead? How will we set about in solving the problems created by a gigantic world population, by technological innovations, and the pressures these two factors put on our environment? Miller’s book remains in the end a history, looking back rather than forward. The question he leaves us with is how much we can learn from the past with respect to a quickly changing future.



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