cover image What's Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship

What's Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship

Loren J. Samons. University of California Press, $29.95 (327pp) ISBN 978-0-520-23660-8

""It is the purpose of this book to present and foster criticism of modern democracy,"" Samons declares in the first line of this contrarian political history, which argues that Americans suffer from a ""national delusion"" when it comes to democracy. He diagnoses numerous symptoms of the delusion, from a misconceived, almost religious obsession with the vote to a tendency towards demagoguery amongst elected officials and the loss of ""moral principles"" as a guide for politics. But though Samons sets out to make what could be a thrilling and infuriating critique of our revered political system, he spends almost all of his time rewriting the history of ancient Athens. Since Samons works as an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, it makes sense that he would analyze Athenian democracy in order to ""offer bracing positive and negative lessons for modern citizens."" In his chapter on elections and voting, he sketches a fascinating portrait of Pericles as a leader willing to challenge popular will--a startling contrast to modern political leadership. Subsequent chapters on public finance, foreign policy and national defense have a more tenuous connection to the book's stated aim, however. Samons does present a clear and cogent narrative of how increases in Athens's public wealth strengthened its democratic participation, which then fueled its imperialism and later its disastrous retreat from defense spending. But when Samons turns abruptly from this complex history to a direct comparison of Athenian and American democracy, the effect is both jarring and unsatisfying. The book offers plenty of insight for readers interested in Athenian history, but the provocative, perhaps brilliant, critique of modern American democracy promised at its outset gets lost along the way.