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Democracy isn't causing the chaos around us

Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It only seems to be a time of intense challenge for democracy. Actually, we are in one of history’s most vibrant periods of people power, says James Miller, author of "Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World."

The big picture: Americans may not approve of the type of democracy being practiced in, say, Hungary and Poland. But free, fair and clear majorities elected their governments, Miller tells me: "The challenge to liberals is that there has been wave after wave of something abhorrent to them — these have been illiberal and anti-liberal."

I spoke with Miller this week. Here is an edited excerpt:

You see a certain arc to the modern phase of democracy?

Yes, I see an arc that runs from the resurrection of democracy as a modern ideal in the French Revolution through to the present, where almost every existing regime claims to be a democracy of some kind (even Russia and China).

Illiberal democracy is democracy, too, right?

Simply sneering at our opponents in democratic societies, and labeling them "populists," as a pejorative term, and asserting that their preferred policies inexorably lead to authoritarianism, and show "how democracy dies," seems to me both historically inaccurate, and politically unhelpful.

How did the U.S. get here?

There was a complacency by Americans about winning the Cold War. Then [a few] blows shook the complacency — of course 2001, the financial crash in 2008. The crash was incredibly important because the assumption of liberal democratic regimes is that the meritocratic elite knows what it's doing. But they blew it and made experts look bad, like Vietnam made military experts look bad.

Are there clues as to where this period ends up?

There are good reasons to worry about what a people trying to exercise its power directly may produce. Democratic revolts can be perverse, and illiberal, in their results. So can democratic elections. I personally believe that — come what may — it is not unreasonable to uphold 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."

Is the jury still out?

I am not super-optimistic. But the jury is still out. If you care for liberal democracy, you have to fight for it. We are not Hungary yet.
Book cover for “Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World.”
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