Democracy’s Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government

Michael Mandelbaum
New York: Public Affairs
A Review by Susan Froetschel

In the history of the world, democracy as we know it has not been around that long and, as with all systems of governance, has some failings. Still among all the imperfect systems, democracy serves best - delivering security, peace and prosperity to the societies that truly embrace its most essential principles.

Mandelbaum’s historical analysis in his book “Democracy’s Good Name” is strong, but does not live up to the intriguing title. “Good name” suggests that the system carries a reputation, one that can be praised and copied, or sullied and scorned. Sadly, the author often tiptoes around the dangers that lurk for democracy and its reputation in the modern world. He lists corruption, inequality and discontent as real problems for democracy, but devotes little attention to election cycles that promote personal quests for power that impose long-term suffering.

For similar reasons, Socrates did not trust the wisdom of the masses. But the ancient Greek philosopher understood the essence of a good name and had no tolerance for hypocrisy. “Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of - for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again,” is an assessment credited to Socrates that could contribute to Mandelbaum’s argument. “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

Socrates pointed out how deliberate ignorance or superficial review of basic political issues inevitably leads to injustice. And indeed, a modern-day democracy - the United States - has tarnished the system’s good name by claiming to liberate nations and then ignore millions of refugees, to promote conservatism and then accumulate billions in public debt, to affect strength while inspiring fear. Hypocrisy and ignorance shake the morale of citizens inside the nation and stir doubt among the onlookers beyond democracy’s borders.

To his credit, Mandelbaum notes that democracy spreads by the power of example. He calls it a “brand,” a choice that cannot be forced on people who lack the settings or features that nurture its growth. He warns about power concentrated within family and people giving up rights to achieve an illusive sense of security.

Mandelbaum deftly analyzes the necessary conditions for genuine democracy to thrive: property rights, legal systems that provide fair and equal treatment, a free-market economy, a lively press and citizens who seek out information. Democracy requires trust and cooperation, even among those who disagree.

A democratic system must combine popular sovereignty and individual liberty, two political traditions once deemed incompatible. Mandelbaum warns that popular sovereignty alone - the mere “tyranny of the majority” described by John Stuart Mill - can lead to oppression, fascist leaders like Hitler and war. Combined, the two traditions contribute to democracy’s good name, promoting peace, stability, innovation and economic opportunity.

In his Mount Rushmore-like homage to those who contributed to democracy’s rise, Mandelbaum includes first US president George Washington, for his modesty and resistance to monarchic power; UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill for fiercely denouncing Nazism; last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who recognized that his constituents no longer respected communism and resisted using force to make them think otherwise; and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, for firmly “establishing durable democratic institutions and procedures in circumstances that were not particularly favorable to them,” in a nation that lacked experience with liberty or popular sovereignty.

Yet, the focus on leadership overlooks the most remarkable aspect of democracy for this reviewer - how substantial groups of people, sometimes even the majority, recognize that their leaders, elected by democratic processes, do not serve the public interest nor act with the highest values in their hearts. All too often, citizens of democracy live with decisions that don’t go their way. “In a democratic political system, by contrast, multiple, indeed regular, peaceful conflicts are assumed… in which no group, faction, party, or individual will win all of the time,” Mandelbaum notes early in the book.

All the while, citizens of democracies go about daily life in a peaceful way, confident that transparency in their government, an inquisitive media, fair elections, free speech and debate, a divided system that provides checks and balances, will all eventually reveal problems and turn the tide of public opinion. Democracy seems messy at times, moving at a snail’s pace, but time and time again, large segments of the population accept outcomes, the transfer of power and the rule of law.

The most patriotic citizens of any democracy value their support for the system over any disagreement with opponents. When arrogant leaders, tyrannical majorities or greedy corporate powers endanger democracy by creating loopholes or clinging to anachronistic ways, the citizens who love this system - including advocates of civil rights for women or minority groups throughout the last century - speak out, enduring ridicule and repression.

Mandelbaum does not explore - or praise - that aspect of democracy nearly enough. The topic deserves its own book, one he is best positioned to write.

Interestingly, he makes a strong case for why communism will fade in China and how democracy could take its place. Democracy is on the march: 119 nations had the system in 2005, compared with 10 in 1900.

Complete backtracking in established democracies is probably unlikely, and theorists suggest that democracies seldom go to war. Yet, internal conflict could emerge from two sources: resentment over increasing inequality or attempts to curb individual liberty among those accustomed to its privileges. Mandelbaum points to the French Revolution as perhaps most important political event in human history, ending monarchy and settling the question about who should govern: “the people - all of them.”

Only a major global crisis - environmental devastation, a worldwide depression with job loss and suffering on massive scale, horrendous acts of terrorism - could imperil democracy in Europe, Japan or the US, prompting large numbers of citizens to give up rights in exchange for security.

Without question, the world will confront numerous challenges and crises in the century ahead. The nations that can encourage certain attitudes among their citizens - appreciation for democratic systems, regardless of winners or losers; respect for opponents who likewise embrace a system of fairness; thorough policy reviews; and determined quests for the global common good - will emerge with the greatest power and even the most comfort in the days ahead.

In the history of the world, democracy as we know it has not been around that long and, as with all systems of governance, has some failings.
© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization