James Miller, Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World (2018).
In the longish winter of our Trumpian discontent, I’ve been reading a lot of books with titles like, How Democracies Die; How Fascism Works; The People vs. Democracy; Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?; and even Can Democracy Work? Apparently, many other worried readers are doing the same. The impetus for the rush to the library table (and then to the streets) is, of course, you-know-who. Yes, the current U.S. president — a.k.a. everything from Donald J. Trump to Trumpty-Dumpty to Non-Reader-in-Chief, to various unprintable monikers (except on social media where everything is printable, shoutable, and endlessly “shareable”).
Though Trump is often described as a “symptom” rather than the “cause” of our present discontents, the shock of the billionaire businessman-cum-reality television host’s occupancy of the U.S. presidency has had deep reverberations. Despite “revelations of boorish behavior, and losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton,” as James Miller dutifully notes in his Can Democracy Work?, Trump won a clear if rather narrow victory in the Electoral College, that peculiar institution that determines the outcome of U.S. presidential elections.
Since Trump’s inauguration at the beginning of 2017, the U.S. has been presided over by, as Miller describes him, “a cartoon of self-reliant cockiness,” a candidate who “adored being the center of attention and, like a louche comedian, merrily defying the norm of civil discourse. He took pleasure in demeaning people publicly… He ballyhooed fabricated claims with impunity, in part because he mocked credentialed experts, and in part because he asserted that most traditional sources of news were flogging fake stories, while he alone was levelling with people.” As “the billionarie who bragged about bribing politicians [but] was now ready to blow the whistle on a shadowy world of politcal fixers” himself put it: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” Trump has, if nothing else, made at least a few of us rethink what we thought we knew about society, government, and politics.
Of the season’s crop of books – actually, they’re last year’s books, published in 2018, to which we’re now catching up — about how we ought to go about living together, Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018) is probably the most often and favourably cited of the growing sub-genre of political meditations. It’s both suitably cautionary, and yet common-sensically middle-of-the-road about the “guardrails” and “norms” of democracy — norms all too often run roughshod, and guardrails frequently skirted by the American president.
Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works (2018) is the most intentionally alarmist of these books (at least in terms of titles), plausibly echoing concerns recently raised by historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2017) and his subsequent The Road to Unfreedom (2018). The People vs. Democracy (2018) by Yascha Mounk is similarly concerned with the fate of democracy in the face of various populist doctrines. Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? (2018) asks the most immediately pertinent of the eponymous questions posed by these various authors. Kuttner, who teaches at Brandeis and is a longtime journalist in the field of political economy, is particularly helpful in linking the fate of our political forms to the economic system that dominates our society. Finally, James Miller’s Can Democracy Work? is the question of this or any other year as it traces the history of a “radical idea” that — as poet Walt Whitman suggested in his Democratic Vistas (1871) — had yet to be written “because that history has yet to be enacted.”
All of these volumes can be honestly recommended for intelligently engaging the relevant issues, not only of the day but of the present era. I’m particularly drawn to Miller’s investigation of a concept that most of us think we understand. As Miller demonstrates, “democracy” deserves a second look.
But before turning to Miller, I notice that one thing most of these books share is a sense of surprise that they have to be written at all. When Levitsky and Ziblatt ask at the outset of How Democracies Die, “Is our democracy in danger?”, they have to admit, “It is a question we never thought we’d be asking.” For years, they’d been “teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times,” from Europe in the 1930s to Latin America’s repressive decades in the 1960s and ‘70s, to contemporary dubious populisms that can be found in both far-flung and familiar places, ranging from India, Russia and Turkey, to such culturally nearby European countries as Italy, Hungary and Poland, all operating under the rubric of democracy.
“But now we find ourselves turning to our own country,” Levitsky and Ziblatt say. “Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States… We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity.” The strengths of American democracy, both institutional and historical, “should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere… Yet, we worry.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt uneasily observe that “American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections… And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.” The rest of their book is devoted to answering the question, “What does all this mean?” Several other books of the season undertake similar inquiries.
My attraction to James Miller’s Can Democracy Work? may be, in part, a mild case of “confirmation bias.” Miller is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research in New York. His political activism goes back to the generation of the 1960s and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and continues right up to the anti-Trump demos in the streets of New York in 2017 and beyond. Miller’s wide ranging writings include “Democracy is in the Streets”: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (1987); as well, there’s a compelling examination of the work of a French thinker, The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993); a history of the rise of rock and roll, Flowers in the Dustbin (1999); plus books about Rousseau and other significant philosophers. And now, a late-in-life reconsideration of modes of governance. Miller, as one reviewer put it, “offers an attractively broad and accessible account of democracy from the Greeks to the present.” Moreover, it’s written in a jargon-free prose that provides a nicely-balanced mix of personal response to current events along with historical analysis. Readers can be assured that this is not merely a textbook exercise. (See, David Bell, “The Many Lives of Liberalism,” New York Review of Books, Jan. 17, 2019.)
Since I’m of the same generation as Miller, was also active in the 1960s student and other movements, enjoyed a lengthy teaching career, and wrote several books about politics and culture, it’s probably not surprising that I rather identify with Miller, especially given that our political views and their evolution over the decades are not dissimilar.
Miller notes that there’s a long line of modern writers — starting with Alexis de Tocqueville and his Democracy in America (1835) — “who have believed that democracy in some sense represented a logical culmination of human affairs.” The most prominent of such thinkers in recent times was probably Francis Fukuyama, who thought, in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, that liberal democracy marked “the end of history.”
Considerable schadenfreud-ish fun has been had at Fukuyama’s expense ever since. Subsequent jihadist “caliphates,” “illiberal democracies,” resurgent nationalisms, and anti-elitist populisms, to say nothing of old-fashioned kleptocracies and tinpot dictators, have painfully demonstrated in the past quarter-century and more that liberal democracy has not triumphantly marked the end of ideological history (much less history itself). If anything, liberal democracy has been embarrassingly diminished since the fall of Soviet Communism.
Though Fukuyama (and many others) may have been wrong about history, what’s less often noted is the possibility that he and others were right about logical culminations. That is, nobody has so far come up with a better proposal for governing societies. Both left theorists and right-wingers have railed against liberal democracy (probably moreso than against each other), but the societies where they’ve ruled provide little more than a history of political wreckage.
Still, democracy has generated its own discontents. As Miller observes, “Tocqueville expected democracy to produce greater equality – yet democratic states conjoined with market societies have recurrently produced growing inequality,” no more so than in recent decades. What’s more, “as nations have grown larger, and as new transnational institutions have changed the everyday life of millions, those who govern have become ncreasingly remote, often making democracy in practice seem like a puppet show, a spectacle in which hidden elites pull all the strings.”
Nonetheless, Miller remarks, “democracy amazingly enough survives – at least as an article of faith or a figment of modern ideology.” Such bizarrely diverse entities as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, a Hindu nationalist India, and a proto-authoritarian Turkey are all happy to claim the democratic mantle. “In a striking contrast to the low regard in which democracy was held throughout most of the rest of recorded human history,” Miller says, “virtually every existing political regime today claims to embody some form of democracy.”
The contrast between the present rhetorical popularity of “democracy” and its actual historical past is one of Miller’s main points. “It is often assumed that democracy emerged as a global political norm as the result of a gradual evolution, realizing the best in a great heritage of Western political thought,” Miller notes. Not so, or, at best, “This account is misleading. Democracy before the French Revolution was generally held to be a fool’s paradise or worse. At the zenith of direct democracy in ancient Athens, one critic called it a ‘patent absurdity’ – and so it seemed for centuries afterward to political theorists from Plato to James Madison.”
It was only in the late 18th century that “theorists and militants resurrected democracy as an articulate idea. In France… the common people of Paris for a few months in 1792 and 1793 practiced their own form of direct democracy in local assemblies, now and then augmented by armed insurrections.” Later, others advocated “a new, indirect form of self-government, a novel regime they called (as had a few Americans before them) a ‘representative democracy.’ Instead of exercising sovereignty directly, the people in a modern democracy should exercise it indirectly, by transferring their power to elected representatives.” Of course, as previously noted, that would raise questions about how the citizenry (or, We the People) could remain vitally engaged in self-governance, the problem of citizenly alienation, and the ambiguous role of experts and technocratic elites.
As reviewer David Bell points out (in the article I cited above), current thinkers about democracy have increasingly turned to revolutionary France to make their case. Previously, theorists tended to ground their ideas in “the Anglo-American political tradition, with particular attention to the 17th century political writer John Locke,” says Bell. He recalls that Locke posited that “men had a natural right to life, liberty and property, and to resist tyranny,” but that current observers, like Miller, barely mention Locke.
The point is that contemporary writers believe that the Lockean tradition has focused too much on individual rights (especially economic and property rights) and not enough on “the common good.” As Bell argues, the older view “has not paid enough attention to moral values and moral education, and it has not done enough to encourage broad democratic participation.” Indeed, Miller begins his history with an account of 5th century BCE ancient Athens, the first great experiment in direct citizen participation. But of course, the Athenian city-state limited the ranks of citizens to a free male minority (maybe one-tenth of a 600,000-person regional population in Attica), excluding women, slaves, and resident foreigners.
What’s more, Athens didn’t inaugurate a viable democratic tradition. Between “the glory that was Greece” and the late 18th century, “divinely-appointed” kings, warlords, aristocrats, oligarchs and mafias held sway in most societies for long, often “dark ages.” Even the U.S., Miller argues, was founded less as a democracy than as a republic in which competent elites would hold in check the popular will. American democracy, developed more than two millennia after the Greeks, was just as exclusionary as its Athenian forebears, if not moreso.
Only with the French Revolution, Miller claims, did a notion emerge of a kind of egalitarian, even “participatory” democracy (to echo a term of the American New Left in the 1960s, the subject of Miller’s important history, “Democracy Is in the Streets”). In his chapter on the French Revolution, Miller pays particular attention to the urban movement in Paris and elsewhere that briefly created democratic assemblies in particular districts (political bodies open to all male citizens). He’s also fond of the Marquis de Condorcet’s draft constitution of 1793 – a draft that was never ratified — which would have given constitutional power to such assemblies, and suggests that this was probably as good a model of democracy as has been invented. A detailed precis of Miller’s historical tour is not necessary here, other than to note that his account will be found instructive by most readers, and that his sense of the present peril is astute.
In Miller’s last historical chapter before he turns to his own autobiographical “coda,” he contemplates, with a cool, horseman-pass-by eye, some of the democratic dreams of the 20th century and their eventual degradation. The scholarly American president Woodrow Wilson (the only U.S. chief executive with a Ph.D. to date) reluctantly brought his country into World War I after a career of writing extensively about democratic theory, while at nearly the same time, Russian revolutionaries marched through Petrograd in the most daring democratic experiment yet attempted. Each, in its way, proved to be failures. Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations collapsed, not to be resurrected until the post-World War II establishment of the United Nations and the creation of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That post-war period in the U.S., Robert Kuttner argues in his Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, also produced the most sustained period, about three decades, that we’ve had of a more balanced and regulated capitalism, a plausible welfare state “safety net,” increased trade unionization and rising workers’ wages, and a democratization of higher education to encourage a democratic forum. It also saw, in the 1960s, Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts that addressed the U.S.’s deepest and longest shame, racial inequality. However, by the 1980s, with the rise of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, regulated markets gave way to deregulated global corporate capitalism, the social democratic welfare state was to a considerable degree shredded, wages stagnated and wealth inequality burgeoned. Worse was just around the corner in the form of populism and recrudescent nativisms – the “America First” barely disguised racism of the Trump regime in which the U.S. is still enmeshed (but also, and hopefully, more than occasionally engaged in “resistance,” in a situation that has become the most “polarized” period of civil unease in recent U.S. history).
The failure of the Russian Revolution took even more nightmarish forms. A decade or so after the triumph of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, the revolution had descended into a dictatorship, not of the proletariat but of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik faction of the Communist Party, led by Josef Stalin. The decade of the 1930s saw the execution of thousands of “ enemies of the people” in a Terror that outdid the earlier excesses of the French, and ultimately, the creation of concentration and labour camps in the Russian wilds where thousands more lives were ended or otherwise wrecked, as a cult of political worship was maintained around the leader. Again, this is history as nightmare that needn’t be fully recited once more, but that nonetheless needs to be noted, given how few apologies these misconceived revolutions produced, and how easily their worst features were repeatedly replicated, often enough by leftists in the name of democracy.
At the heart of the latter part of Miller’s history is a story of disenchantment with the democratic idea. Its emblematic figure is the prominent political columnist and thinker, Walter Lippmann, who flourished first in the 1920s and continued to influence American thought until his death in 1974. In books like Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), Lippmann considered the role of the media, public opinion, polling, mass culture and society, and the newly-emergent techniques of psychological manipulation through “public relations” – all relatively new features of “advanced” societies — in an effort to measure the prospects of democracy. His conclusions were gloomy. “In a complex environment, where only disconnected bits of information are available to the average citizen,” Miller says, summing up Lippmann’s view, “it was almost impossible for the public’s opinion on any matter of moment to be either cogent or coherent.”
In Miller’s precis of Lippmann’s bleak account, the merely nominal citizens, “inescapably prisoners of shadowy and unexamined assumptions, immersed in private lives involving the pursuit of various personal interests [are left] with limited time and even less attention to give to private affairs.” As Lippmann puts it in The Phantom Public, the individual “does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen… There is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuing directing force in public affairs.”
A despairing Lippmann eventually opts for management by a technocratic “special class,” an idea first proposed as far back as Plato and the ancient Greeks. But perhaps Lippmann’s generalizations about the “public” are not sufficiently textured, given that it’s demonstrably the case that a certain percentage of the citizenry is not so immersed in private life and personal pursuits as to be indifferent to public affairs. The question becomes, how does a significant proportion of the citizenry become concerned enough and sufficiently knowledgable to indeed become a “directing force” in public life?
Miller attempts to soften the blow by noting the subsequent more hopeful perspective of philosopher John Dewey who, in The Public and its Problems (1927), reaffirmed the notion that (in Miller’s words) “democracy was the rational goal of historical development, a natural result of evolution – and also a matter of shared faith.” Already, we have a hint, as Dewey and others argued, that the state of the public mind – or, simply, education – will be crucial to the success of democracy. (Presumably, educational levels – one of the notable indicators of recent electoral behaviour – say, of Trump supporters and Brexit “leavers” in England, has a direct correlation with eventual political actions.)
In any case, Miller observes we’re a long way from Condorcet’s Enlightenment hope that future citizens would “approach a condition in which everyone will have the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason, to preserve his mind free from prejudice, to understand his rights and to exercise them in accordance with his conscience and his creed.”
The state of democracy has reached its seeming nadir several times in recent U.S. history. However, critics have usefully challenged American imperialism, the suppression of free speech, and repeated violations of equality with respect to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference over the decades. Of equal interest are those occasions when defenders of the American Constitution have rescued (or attempted to rescue) U.S. democracy from its perils, follies, and periodic waves of authoritarianism.
To take one recent example — far enough away to qualify as history, but still within the fringes of living memory — in March 1949, the New York Times published an essay headlined, “Should Communists Be Allowed to Teach?” As daring as the very discussion of that topic might be considered at the time (when Communists were equated with the Devil himself), the answer that the op-ed offered was even more shocking. The piece replied to the question with an unabashed “Yes,” on the grounds of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The article appeared at the beginning of what came to be known as the era of McCarthyism, named for U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, who used his place in Congress to pursue alleged Communists and others (particularly homosexuals). It was also the time of the Smith Act, a U.S. law that put left-wing American citizens in jail, mainly for their beliefs, and the reign of the House Un-American Activities Committee, also pursuing so-called “subversives.”
The incident that inspired the Times article was a case at the University of Washington in which the university president and the board of regents, rejecting a faculty committee recommendation to the contrary, fired three professors who were Communist Party (CP) members, and put three former CP faculty on probation. In reality, the “most significant feature of what has been done,” said the article, is that “the entire faculty is now on probation. Every scholar, every teacher, is officially notified that if in his search for the truth, he finds the policies of the American Communist Party to be wise, and acts on that belief, he will be dismissed from the university.”
The author of this defense of those holding extreme and unpopular dissident beliefs was a 77-year-old pillar of the intellectual establishment, Alexander Meiklejohn (1872-1964), an emeritus professor of philosophy. Meiklejohn had been a dean at Brown, President of Amherst in 1912 and, as an educational reformer, founded the Experimental College program at the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s, where he concluded his formal academic career the following decade, teaching in the philosophy department.
Meiklejohn, who was as much a radical as a paragon of respectability, went on to be an early prominent figure in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and, as an octogenerian, the head of a citizenly adult education program in San Francisco. In the contentious early Cold War period, Meiklejohn was a democratic activist, writing not only articles like the one in the New York Times, but also books laying out his theory of Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government (1948). The elder intellectual also appeared before Congress at the end of 1957 to exercise the citizen’s constitutional right to “present to the House of Representatives this petition for redress of grievances,” calling upon the government to end the mandate of the Committee on Un-American Activities. He was the sort of maverick who could write, “The commonly urged identification of Constitutional freedom with the freedom of business enterprise is an illusion which could be entertained only in a society which is too busy seeking success to give time or energy to finding out what success is.”
Meiklejohn’s free speech theories and subsequent writings (such as the defense of Communist professors) were gathered together in what is probably his best-known book, Political Freedom: The Constitutional Powers of the People (1960). His emphasis in theorizing about democracy was to argue that rather than the usual three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – we ought to recognize a fourth branch, that of the citizens (or electors), and that “We the People” comes first. It is the need of a self-governing citizenry to hear all political viewpoints that justifies Meiklejohn’s rather absolutist position on the primacy of the free speech First Amendment. At the core of the democratic commitment was Condorcet’s old concern about that mental “condition in which everyone will have the knowledge necessary” to participate in democracy. Which is to say, democracy is inseparable from a theory of education. Hence, the Experimental College program and other educational experiments in which Meiklejohn engaged. (For more about Meiklejohn, see R.J. Rowan, “Alexander Meiklejohn,” dooneyscafe.com, Jan. 31, 2019; Joseph Tussman, “Remembering Alexander Meiklejohn,” in The Burden of Office, 1989; and John Dixon, “Two Principles of Free Speech,” dooneyscafe.com, Mar. 20, 2015.)
In the end, thanks to fellow politicians, as well as lawyers like counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, media personalities such as Edward R. Murrow, and public intellectuals like the lesser-known Meiklejohn, “McCarthyism” was more or less defeated. The Senator from Wisconsin who gave his name to an authoritarian doctrine was formally censured by his colleagues; he came to an early and alcoholic bad end; and political protocols returned to what’s sometimes referred to in Congress as “regular order.”
Meiklejohn doesn’t make an appearance in Can Democracy Work? or in Miller’s brilliant earlier book about the intellectual origins of the New Left in the early 1960s. But I cite the episode of McCarthyism because it represents the most dangerous lurch toward authoritarianism in recent U.S. history prior to the movement that brought Donald Trump to power. As well, it’s useful to remember the role of public thinkers who helped preserve imperilled elements of democracy, because it suggests that even periods of severe aberration, like the present moment, can be subject to remedy.
In his indispensible “Democracy Is In the Streets,” Miller takes account of a wide-range of important thinkers of the previous mid-century in the U.S., especially C. Wright Mills, but also Richard Hofstadter, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Michael Harrington. More important, Miller makes a thoroughly persuasive case for the intellectual and practical importance of then 22-year-old Tom Hayden, principal author of the 1962 “Port Huron Statement,” the defining document of the American New Left. There’s been so much subsequent distortion of the political history of the 1960s that Miller’s interpretation is to be strongly recommended. It also serves to remind us that practical utopian thinking remains a possibility. Perhaps current notions like a “Green New Deal” or various health-care-for-all schemes are a hint of that earlier thinking.
Miller closes his history of the democratic idea with a coda that embodies considerable charm. He includes his overwrought e-mail to his three sons on the occasion of Trump’s election victory in 2016 (“Dearly beloved, I am sorry that I and my generation of compatriots have failed you, and your children, as our country reaps the whirlwind”). As well, he recalls the exuberant opposition atmosphere in the giant New York street demonstration in which he participated, upon the occasion of the new president’s inauguration (“The street was a river of ‘pussyhats,’ pink hats with cat ears… an allusion [to a recording of how Trump] had bragged… about forcing himself on women.”)
The answer to Miller’s title question is that – and revealing this is hardly a “spoiler” — we still don’t really know whether democracy can work, and we probably won’t know for quite a while, but there’s plenty to think about. Rather than facile answers, Miller turns to re-assess an important political thinker of his youth, and to consider the problems of recent attempts at “direct democracy.”
Several decades after his initial encouter, Miller finds himself re-reading the American political thinker and government consultant, Samuel Huntington (1927-2008), probably best-known for his The Clash of Civilizations (1996), in which he foresaw that future conflicts were likely to be fought between cultures rather than countries, and that Islamic fundamentalism would pose a major challenge to “Western” democracies. Miller recalls how, upon first reading Huntington in the mid-1970s as a young radical, “I bristled at his hostility to the New Left and his skepticism about the value of participatory democracy.” Indeed, most of us of Miller’s generation regarded Huntington as something of a reactionary, a “neo-liberal” avant la lettre, forgetting that he was in fact a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party who had written speeches for “progressive” candidates and served in the Jimmy Carter administration during a brief sabbatical from his long academic career at Havard.
But now, in the wake of Trump, re-reading Huntington’s observation that in America “polarization occurs over moral issues rather than economic ones,” seems less far afield to Miller. “The image of the triumphant realization of the American promise or ideal was an exercise in patriotic unreality at best and hypocrisy at worst . The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes,” wrote Huntinton. A half-century later, says Miller, “These now seem to me sensible observations.” Cautionary 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.”
In Huntington’s last book, Who Are We? (2004), about a demographically changing American “identity,” he warned of the “emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements comprised largely… of white males,” aggrieved and fearful of the loss of social and economic status, who would be “both racially and culturally inspired, and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black, and anti-immigrant.” As Miller remarks, by the end of Huntington’s life, “this is what American democracy looked like: a fragile ideology, with cloudy prospects.” Miller is particularly sensitive to that fragility, and aware that “this is what democracy looks like” (a chant often heard in the anti-Trump demonstrations) can have shifting meanings.
Miller recalls that this defiant meme had also been heard earlier in the decade, during the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Occupy,” beginning in 2011, was an anarchist-inspired national movement that involved a camp-in at significant sites across the country (and even outside the U.S.). Its great success was to raise public consciousness about the enormous disparity in wealth between the top 1% of the population and the remaining 99%. (These periodic reminders of stark inequality are a long-standing feature of U.S. economic analysis. Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” of 1962 contains a footnote informing us that the top 1.04% owned about 30% of all wealth and that that percentage had been relatively steady for the previous half-century.)
Occupy was also the largest experiment in U.S. direct democracy since the 1960s. Intentionally eschewing “leaders,” supposedly “organized without organization,” determined to maintain “consensus” decision-making, this rolling perpetual meeting developed its own arcane rituals that tended to resemble aspects of New Age mysticism. In the end, it was unable to develop coherent political demands or practical methods for achieving change.
Apart from idealistic claims by its die-hard participants, most sympathetic observers (including Miller) regarded the manifestation as a well-intentioned failure. Like other anarchist attempts, it had difficulty in conceiving a notion of legitimate authority that worked, or of solving problems of scale and decision-making. For Miller, Occupy awakened memories of advocating similar forms of “participatory democracy” a half-century earlier. But ultimately, “this process of political experimentation slowly ground to a halt, as small groups of neo-anarchists… kept searching for confrontational ‘experiences of visionary inspiration’.” A lot of experienced political organizers thought that the Occupy activists might have done as well simply by working in standard electoral politics.
By contrast, a mass school shooting in February 2018 that resulted in the deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, inspired a student-led anti-gun violence movement, “March for Our Lives.” The savvy teenagers who organized March for Our Lives quickly focussed on electoral get-out-the-vote politics and making specific demands at state legislatures for new legal measures aimed at increasing public safety. In the 2018 midterm elections in the U.S. there was a significant increase in turnout among young voters, the demographic that March for Our Lives sought to organize, while a remarkable number of state legislatures took some form of legal action, however mnimal, to deter gun violence.
Miller is inclined to prefer the mainstream politics of the Parkland students to “single-mindedly pursuing a new form of ‘collective thinking’… meant to forge consensus… We would do better to explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish. This, in part, is what I understand by the aspiration to create a liberal democracy,” Miller concludes.
In the dying decades of the Soviet Union, the term “actually existing socialism” was used to refer to the moribund not-very-socialist-at-all system that was the ruins of the 1917 revolutionary dream. Maybe, in the era of Trump, we should refer to our damaged political condition as “actually existing democracy” (or some variant — “actually existing democratic global capitalism”?). That, at least, would recognize the not-so-glorious imperial histories and huge imperfections of current democratic states, while firmly preferring countries that meet the standard checklist of democratic traits to those that don’t. At the same time, however imperfect the present Trumpian moment, it would allow one to hold onto, as Miller puts it, the “aspiration to create a liberal democracy.”
In the closing pages of Miller’s thought-provoking contemplation of the history of the democratic idea, he turns to those checklists of democratic traits to measure how we’re doing. There’s the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that calls for “the right to life, liberty, and security of person; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression… and the right to take part in government, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” And that doesn’t enumerate aspirations for rights to shelter, meangingful work, education, health care, and social security. Miller also recalls the institutional requirements for a democracy proposed by Robert Dahl, a major scholar of democratic society in the 1970s, which focus on the rights of adult citizens and the rule of law.
There’s considerable contempory evidence, Miller concedes, that raises doubts about whether the U.S. is meeting those basic requirements, despite his own ultimate support for what I’m half-tongue-in-cheek calling “actually existing democracies,” as superior to the alternatives. As well, the prospects are worrisome. If the vibrancy of democracy is directly linked to education and the state of mind of the citizenry, the current hollowing out of broad-based university education and its replacement by glorified business schools taught by part-time staff in corporatized universities is as disturbing as the disproportionate corporate power that Robert Kuttner outlines in his book on global capitalism.
Beyond all that, Miller recalls the moral dimension of political life insisted on by figures like the playwright and first president of the post-Communist Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. “I am convinced,” Havel wrote in Summer Meditations (1991), “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is – regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist – humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.”
The best-conceived democratic mechanisms will fail, says Havel, “if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values.” The “dormant goodwill in people,” he implores, “needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human existence.” Havel’s plea continues to echo, not only through James Miller’s engaging book, but through the house of distorted mirrors in which we presently live.