Democracy means “rule by the people,” but today that seems an increasingly distant ideal. We live in a diverse country of 310 million people with a government responsible for a huge range of domestic and foreign concerns. Even full-time professionals have trouble keeping track of what’s going on. In such a situation, how can ordinary people exercise much control over public affairs?
But if democracy can’t really be rule by the people, at least not under present conditions, what is it? Nobody seems to know, and if someone does no one else agrees with him. With that problem in mind, Chilton Williamson has written a book that explores at length the ambiguities, contradictions, and doubtful prospects of whatever it is that we call democracy.
After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy (ISI, 2012) is extraordinarily wide-ranging. It starts with a long bicycle tour of France by a young British historian, which leads to a discussion of whether the centralized and officially egalitarian France of today is freer or more democratic than the loosely and locally organized France that existed before the Revolution. The author then spends the rest of the book exploring the vicissitudes of the democratic cause, the movements, institutions, and meanings associated with it, and current conditions that make its future success doubtful.