Can Democracy Work?

Pages: 320
Subject: Politics
Imprint: Oneworld

Can Democracy Work?

A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World

James Miller

We all claim to love democracy - but is it a force for common good or something much more volatile?
9781786074027 (4 Oct 2018)
RRP £20.00

The Book

The ancient Greeks chose their leaders by lottery because they saw elections as inherently corrupt and undemocratic. Indeed, for much of human history, democracy was a dirty word. Today it is held up as the logical culmination of human affairs, invoked to support the vast majority of governments around the world. But if both North Korea and the United States consider themselves democratic - and so do liberals and conservatives, capitalists and communists, bureaucrats and populists - isn't the idea meaningless?

This is the biography of one of the world's most powerful ideas, a two-thousand-year battle between abstract rights and passionate convictions. From lofty philosophical debate to violent uprising, Can Democracy Work? reveals a troubled history and argues that, for better or worse, only the people can decide its fate.

Additional Information

Subject Politics
Pages 320
Imprint Oneworld


About the Author

James Miller is professor of politics and liberal studies, and faculty director of the MA in creative publishing and critical journalism at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of Examined Lives, which is also published by Oneworld. He lives in New York.


‘Distinguished historian of ideas James Miller's short history of democracy and its different meanings is both compulsive and compulsory reading for our sometimes shockingly disenchanted times. Ever optimistic, Miller remains enamoured of his native United States's striking experiment in cosmopolitan self-governance, and stands proudly and persuasively tall for liberal - and democratic - ideals.'

- Paul Cartledge, author of Democracy: A Life

‘This is a bold, eloquent, and utterly convincing history of what democracy has meant and should mean - from the Assembly of Ancient Greece to the anti-Trump resistance. James Miller has produced one of the wisest reflections on the glories and limits of popular rule I have ever read.'

- Michael Kazin, author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918

‘At the very moment of democracy's apparent endangerment, one of its best friends offers up the most capacious and inspiring history of it ever composed. From the Greeks to the present, Miller's light touch and profound insight join each other on every page to make this a truly indispensable work for the present crisis.'

- Samuel Moyn, author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World

‘No one is better qualified to wrestle with the riddle of democracy than James Miller, which is why I have been eagerly awaiting this brilliant and necessary book. Can Democracy Work? is an eloquent, clear-eyed account of democracy's myriad challenges. This concise and compelling history deserves to be read and debated by all of us who still dare to dream of a society of equals. These pages left me feeling better prepared and reinvigorated to work toward a more democratic future.'

- Astra Taylor, director of What is Democracy? and author of The People’s Platform

‘James Miller, who has illuminated democracy's radical possibilities, now offers some sharp reflections on how those possibilities have fared over the centuries. At a moment when the very meaning of the word is up for grabs, Miller brings us back to philosophical essentials as forged by contingency, contradiction, and human folly. Refreshing and unsettling, here is some political intelligence in a dark and confusing time.'

- Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy

‘This sharp, spirited, engaged intellectual history of democracy, including its recent and often loose coupling with liberalism, combines an appraisal of both inherent and situational pitfalls with an appreciation of redemptive possibilities. If democracy is protean, what matters, this rich work teaches, is the quality of our normative choices and institutional imagination.'

- Ira I. Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University

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