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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.

Go deeper

U.S. grants temporary protected status to thousands of Venezuelans

Venezuelan citizens participate in the vote for the popular consultation in December 2020, as part of a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Doral, Florida. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP

Venezuelans living in the United States will be eligible to receive temporary protected status for 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday.

Why it matters: Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to the U.S. amid economic, political and social turmoil back home. Former President Trump, on his last full day in office, granted some protections to Venezuelans through the U.S. Deferred Enforced Departure program, but advocates and lawmakers said the move didn't go far enough.

"She-cession" threatens economic recovery

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Decades of the slow economic progress women made catching up to men evaporated in just one year.

Why it matters: As quickly as those gains were erased, it could take much, much longer for them to return — a warning Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued today.

The Week America Changed

Sandberg thought Zuckerberg was "nuts" on remote work in January 2020

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Image

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg thought Mark Zuckerberg was "nuts" when he raised the possibility in January 2020 that 50,000 Facebook employees might have to work from home. By March 6, they were.

Why it matters: In an interview Monday with Axios Re:Cap, Sandberg explained how Facebook moved quickly to respond to the pandemic with grants for small businesses and work-from-home stipends for its employees, and how the company has been watching the unfolding crisis for women in the workforce.