The Magazine

Democracy at Home

The promise and peril of universal suffrage.

Oct 22, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 06 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Democracy's Good Name

The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government

by Michael Mandelbaum

PublicAffairs, 336 pp., $27.95

Until recently, at least by historical standards, democracy had a bad name.

In 1787, when state representatives gathered in Philadelphia to craft a constitution to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation, democracy was identified with direct rule by the people and was considered a recipe for instability and injustice. In Federalist 10, James Madison rehearsed the conventional wisdom, which maintained that in a democracy "a common passion or interest will, in almost every case" seize a majority and impel it to tyrannize the minority.

"Hence it is," Madison observed, "that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

But also in The Federalist, on the basis of a new "science of politics," Madison defended the unconventional conviction, embodied in the recently drafted Constitution, that the proper organization of government institutions could capitalize on democracy's virtues, contain its disadvantages, and thereby render it an ally of liberty.

By enlarging the republic and multiplying the number of interests and thus reducing the impact of any one of them; by using schemes of representation to filter and refine the people's preferences; by separating, checking, and balancing governmental powers; and by further diffusing power among federal and state government, the Constitution did go a long way toward taming democracy's wayward tendencies. Two hundred and twenty years later, the nation has vindicated Alexander Hamilton's hope, expressed in the first installment of The Federalist, that America would prove to the world that individual freedom and democratic self-government belong together, and that together they represent a universally desirable form of government.

To be sure, the world needed some convincing. A century ago, only 10 countries in the world were democratic. Europe remained the home of monarchy and empire. Great Britain, though increasingly democratic domestically, ruled its colonies autocratically. Then World War I, which destroyed Europe's old order, ushered in the rise of communism and fascism, both of which threatened to defeat and destroy democracy. Led by the United States, which emerged as the mightiest of them, the democracies prevailed, first in World War II and then in the Cold War. Beginning in the 1970s, by which time the number of democracies had reached 30, a wave of democratization swept the globe. In the last three decades the number of democracies has more than tripled. Today, no fewer than 119, or nearly two-thirds, of the world's countries are democratic, even as the rise of Islamic extremism and autocracy in Russia and China threaten democracy's progress.

Michael Mandelbaum's excellent and broadly accessible book seeks to account for democracy's success, and to assess the prospects for its extension. Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is cautiously optimistic.

To understand democracy's rise and its current golden reputation, he argues, it is necessary to appreciate, as even learned commentators seldom do, that "what the world of the twenty-first century calls democracy is, in fact, a fusion of two political traditions that, for most of recorded history, were not only separate and distinct from each other but were seen by virtually all those who took an interest in politics as entirely incompatible." This fusion of liberty and popular sovereignty, or rule by the people through free, fair, and regular elections, produced "a hybrid political form" that has proved remarkably resilient.

Neither of the two component parts alone provides all the goods that we have come to associate with democracy. Absent either, democracy as we have come to know it is unthinkable:

Liberty belongs to individuals; self-government to the community as a whole. Liberty involves what governments do, or, more accurately, what they are forbidden to do--they are forbidden to abridge individual freedoms. Self-government, by contrast, has to do with the way those who govern are chosen--they are chosen by all the people. Self-government therefore answers the question of who governs, while liberty prescribes rules for how those who govern may do so. Liberty refers to the way the machinery of government operates, self-government to the identity of the operators.