Book Review: The Deal with Democracy

New and Notable

May 2024

Reading time min

Cover of The Civic Bargain

Don’t be such a pessimist! Democracy is not dead. Not yet, anyway. But in the United States, it is begging for our recommitment.

Josiah Ober, a Stanford professor of political science and of classics, and co-author Brook Manville make that hopeful point in The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, in what turns out to be a riveting romp—no, actually—through thousands of years of Western political history. (Honestly, slogging through 1,500 years of British history boiled down to 50 pages felt tough, but the gripping Athenian and Roman sections more than made up for the sacrifice. Consider it a civic compromise.)

My civic friends may not like what I have to say, but they grant me the space in which to say it. And for my part, I grant them a similar space.

Stanford political science and classics professor Josiah Ober and Brook Manville in The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives, Princeton U. Press

They start with a spare definition of democracy: “when extensive, socially diverse bodies of citizens govern themselves, accepting no ruler except for one another.” Such an arrangement is possible only when people decide they’re better off bargaining with each other than fighting and enter into a win-win deal, giving something to get something, in what the authors define as a civic bargain.

Through four examples—ancient Athenian democracy, republican Rome, British parliamentarianism, and American constitutionalism—the authors show why and how democracies came about and where they failed, at times or ultimately. Some takeaways:

•  Everything in moderation. Too much wealth—and the inequality that inevitably follows—can be corrosive to civic friendship. Even personal freedom must be checked in favor of compromise.

•  Scale is hard, but it can be good. As a democracy grows in size and diversity, citizens must update the civic bargain to include the new additions. Then come the ability to harness a wide range of knowledge in solving complex problems and a more robust workforce for economic growth and security.

•  Democracy takes work. You have to show up to vote, volunteer, serve in the military, and engage with others about complex issues.

It’s worrisome that military recruitment is down, as is participation in civic organizations. It’s worrisome that political parties have a stranglehold on the civic narrative. 

But America has already confronted one of the greatest threats to the system: scaling up its citizenship, a challenge that doomed Athenian democracy. Now it must deal with rising inequality and the precarious state of civic friendship, two conditions that led to the downfall of Rome in the late first century BCE.

“When Romans began treating fellow citizens as enemies to be defeated rather than as friends with whom one might fruitfully negotiate,” Ober and Manville write, “the democratic republic collapsed and was replaced by a form of monarchy.” Luckily, the solution to this threat is entirely in our hands. 

Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is the senior editor at StanfordEmail her at

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