You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Bargaining for Democracy

Bargaining for Democracy

Constitutionalism is a way of navigating imperfection and making the most of what we hold in common.

Hans Zeiger
The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives
by Brook Manville and Josiah Ober (Princeton University Press, 299 pp., $29.95)

What is democracy, and what must citizens do to keep it alive? These are ancient questions that have been resolved in different ways through the ages. History teaches that freedom is hard work, and there are no guarantees of its survival.

Even with all that seems discouraging in our own time, Americans should take heart that we the people can make a difference and maintain the continuity of our experiment. This is one of many lessons readers will take away from Brook Manville and Josiah Ober’s new book, The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives. Manville is an organizational expert and former McKinsey vice president who has consulted, written, and taught widely. Ober teaches in the Stanford University School of Humanities. Both have written extensively on ancient Athenian democracy and culture.

Manville and Ober settle on the language of democracy as the appropriate terminology for self-government without the rule of a central authority (what they call a “boss”). While acknowledging the distinctions others have made between republicanism and democracy, they conclude that republicanism is actually a form of democratic rule in which the people hold the ultimate authority. As case studies in sustainable democracy, they select the Athenian polis, the Roman republic, the British parliamentary monarchy, and American constitutional democracy.

While democracy takes different forms and evolves over time, the authors identify certain common characteristics among their case studies. Among these conditions, citizens agree on a definition of who is a citizen, lead their own governing institutions, share a commitment to good faith compromise, embrace forms of civic friendship, and promote civic education widely. Together, these conditions comprise what Manville and Ober call a “civic bargain.”

The authors remind us that citizenship is more than voting, and democracy is more than the formal structures of government. They criticize the tendency of many books on democratic problems to focus on governing institutions while neglecting other critical aspects of citizenship. This criticism is well-placed, and Americans would benefit richly from considering the multi-faceted analysis of democratic citizenship offered by this book. Indeed, for a self-governing society, our daily ways of cooperating, learning, and relating all make a profound difference. They deserve just as much attention as elections and polls.

Manville and Ober’s call for a robust practice of bargaining acknowledges the reality of human imperfection, as well as the diversity of interests in a pluralistic society. There are no perfect fixes to political problems, and those who believe in winner-take-all solutions soon find themselves dealing outside of the civic bargain. Constitutionalism, especially as practiced in America, is a way of navigating imperfection and difference, and making the most of what we hold in common.

Despite this focus on everyday citizenship, the authors do not deny a regime’s need for leadership. Instead, they believe leaders in a constitutional democracy should “advise but seldom command.” Democracy’s alternatives are characterized by “bossiness,”­ which has a tendency to grow in a society when habits of bargaining fall away. Manville and Ober see in contemporary America a growing attitude of bossiness in our public discourse and governance, even as many Americans are disengaging from the responsibilities of citizenship.

How do we address such problems in a society as large and pluralistic as ours? America, like every democratic society before it, must deal with challenges of scale as its population, economy, and cultural diversity grow beyond anything the founding generation could have imagined. As the authors write, “The question of how to scale up the citizenship while sustaining civic norms and values is one of the primary challenges that a democracy must address if it is to survive.”

In the face of these challenges, the authors point to American federalism as one way to advance a healthy pluralism. They say federalist principles represent “a substantial organizational advance on the methods of ancient federal states, combin[ing] political activity at the local and state levels with voting for representatives at the national level.” While Manville and Ober are correct in identifying the significance of this innovation, they could well have expanded on this theme. Indeed, federalism deserves a far more extensive treatment among those seeking a way forward for American democracy in the 21st century, and it offers a fruitful field for deeper exploration by other writers.

Manville and Ober rightly maintain that civic education is essential to our democratic health. In the case studies consulted, civic education is more than the civics curriculum of formalized schooling. Rather, “civic education was built into the cultural practices and expectations of the society.” It was presented in the treasured rituals, folkways, and stories passed down from generation to generation. And civic education must be more than a neutral memorization of political facts. “Ultimately good civic education must answer the questions of why democratic citizenship is worth striving for and why its costs are worth paying,” they write. And citizens must be habituated to engage in the kind of civic friendship and practices of bargaining that are essential to the maintenance of democracy.Manville and Ober discern a growing civics movement in America, with parallels to an earlier movement to revive civic education in the early 20th century. In fact, Stanford University’s famous course on Problems of Citizenship came into being in 1920. Ober played a significant role in the recent creation and implementation of Stanford’s Civics Initiative to promote meaningful civic education in the university’s course offerings.

As we expand our civic knowledge, we should listen seriously to the case studies proffered by Manville and Ober. The authors offer a useful and accessible framework for talking about democracy—in a time when we are all too accustomed to speaking past one another on fundamental matters of civic life. As presented by Manville and Ober, Americans on the Left, Right, and middle should be able to see themselves in the great democratic tradition that is ours to hand down to the next generation. Rather than despairing about the future of that tradition, we should learn from the past and see how we might yet prolong the American experiment.

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center (, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers who are committed to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition.

Image: Two women in conversation. (Unsplash: Giorgio Grani)

AuthoritarianismCultureDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesBook Reviews