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By Wallace R. Wirths
Sussex, NJ: Media Specialists, 1993, 269 pages

This book is described on the dust-jacket as "a provocative primer on democracy," and is (somewhat optimistically, given its polemical tone) aimed at "college political science courses and ... advanced high school classes." It provides a general overview of democracy from its roots in ancient Greece to its contemporary manifestations in the home, workplace, courts, marketplace, and governments of modern society. Wirths devotes a chapter each to Athenian democracy; natural law and natural rights; the distinction between a democracy and a republic; the United States as a democratic republic; the threats to democracy in modern America; "the tyranny of numbers" -- the search for a balance between majority and minority in a democracy; the perils of bureaucracy; civil rights and the treatment of minorities; civil disobedience; lawyers and the courts; crime and punishment; the free market economy; democracy at the local level; and, finally, the prerequisites of democracy.

Throughout the book, Wirths argues that the concept of democracy as it is commonly understood is a myth. Taking up Rousseau's claim that "a true democracy has never existed and never will exist; for it is against the natural order of things that the majority should govern the minority," he contends that, with the possible exception of ancient Athens, the cantons of Switzerland, and the early New England villages, "men have never experienced anything near genuine political democracy. What we have had are republics, and they have usually disintegrated into some form of benign, elective monarchy or oligarchy." The distinction between a democracy and a republic is a crucial one, Wirths says, yet one which "very few of our politicians today seem to understand and which hardly any of our citizens comprehend." The framers of the Constitution went to great lengths to establish the United States as a republic, not as a democracy -- as a government of laws, not of people. It is very significant, Wirths notes, that not only is the term "democracy" not mentioned anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, but the word does not appear in the constitutions of any of the fifty states.

Social and political realities today further confirm that democracy is at best an elusive ideal, according to Wirths. Politics has become the domain of a professional elite, carried out in Washington, in corporate committees, in state legislatures, and city halls, often without the consent -- sometimes without the knowledge -- of the governed. The family and workplace are dominated by strict hierarchies, free enterprise is dominated by stifling bureaucracies, legislation is dominated by lobbyists and special interests. In short, while the liberties we do enjoy in our democratic republic are probably greater than anywhere else in the world, there is no shortage of threats to true democracy in our lives as social and political beings. "The `people' have very little power and certainly in nearly all cases they don't rule."

In sum, democracy is "a form of government which has never actually existed anywhere in the world, doesn't today, and, undoubtedly, never will!"

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.