Democracy: A History by John Dunne

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Democracy by John Dunne (Atlantic, 2005) is book that gives deep political consideration of the concept of democratic government throughout the written history of the world. Although the subtitle is “A History,” I found it to be much more a philosophical text about what democracy has meant throughout time rather than a straight-forward history book. It was full of new perspectives I hadn’t considered before and it has provided a great introduction to me for my personal study of American history and government that I’m pursuing for the next few years.

The author’s main consideration is why and how the most civilized and appropriate societies today are called democracy. Dunne began by looking at the word democracy and what it means, especially in the context of ancient Athens. Athens was the first city-state to adopt the concept and assign it a name, but their creation of democracy failed pitifully, and led to a negative philosophy of democratic processes for much of the next thousand years.

From Athens, Dunne then considers the French Revolution. The institution of the American form of government is not addressed at this point mainly because it was considered a “Republic.” It is only as the French Revolution adapted the concept that the application of the term became more widespread. Now, as mentioned, it is the term for the free, representative governments that exist around the world.

A few main points stood out of me as I read. Here are just a few of them.

First, democracy means every person has a voice. By definition, then, a democracy is not possible. There will always be someone left out, someone who does not have a voice, whether it is the women and children in a home, or a person on a high mountain top. Besides the point that every single person speaking their mind would unwieldy in the extreme. There would be no way to actually decide anything. True democracy means elimination every privilege. No one is more important than another.

With this consideration, government then is the struggle of determining who is entitled to act in the people’s name. What grounds gives them that right? What inequalities will exist as decisions are made? Who is subject to whom? And/or who is subject to what?

So, a successful republic (what we call a democracy today) is only representing the voice of the people as much as the virtue of the representatives are working on behalf of the people. The representatives must do things for the good of the country and the people. Much of what government is today, around the world, is the “rule of the politician.” Politicians actually rule with the concept “egoism,” which means using self-interest as the basis of morality. They do what they believe is right, rather then the interest of the people, the nation, etc.

People don’t vote very much today mostly because of the disappointment in what we get in exchange for our vote. What is the point? The leaders will do what they want!

The basic question is this: Are we ruled by people or are we ruled by the law?

These are all concepts that hadn’t occurred to me in this way before and it gives me a new perspective as I pursue other books about our great nation and the government that directs its function.

Reviewed on June 13, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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