Is democracy in trouble, perhaps even dying? Pundits say so, and polls show that most Americans believe that their country’s system of governance is being “tested” or is “under attack.” But is the future of democracy necessarily so dire? In The Civic Bargain, Brook Manville and Josiah Ober push back against the prevailing pessimism about the fate of democracy around the world. Instead of an epitaph for democracy, they offer a guide for democratic renewal, calling on citizens to recommit to a “civic bargain” with one another to guarantee civic rights of freedom, equality, and dignity. That bargain also requires them to fulfill the duties of democratic citizenship: governing themselves with no “boss” except one another, embracing compromise, treating each other as civic friends, and investing in civic education for each rising generation.
Manville and Ober trace the long progression toward self-government through four key moments in democracy’s history: Classical Athens, Republican Rome, Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy, and America’s founding. Comparing what worked and what failed in each case, they draw out lessons for how modern democracies can survive and thrive. Manville and Ober show that democracy isn’t about getting everything we want; it’s about agreeing on a shared framework for pursuing our often conflicting aims. Crucially, citizens need to be able to compromise, and must not treat one another as political enemies. And we must accept imperfection; democracy is never finished but evolves and renews itself continually. As long as the civic bargain is maintained—through deliberation, bargaining, and compromise—democracy will live.
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