Democracy is often misunderstood, with tragic results, says Stanford classicist

Drawing from ancient democracy and modern game theory, Stanford classics and political science Professor Josiah Ober warns that contemporary assumptions about democracy can lead to unrealistic expectations of what democracy can deliver.

Video by Corrie Goldman and Mark Hanlon

Josiah Ober says a reexamination of democracy's ancient origins sheds light on the values and limitations of democracy in contemporary politics.

Less than a decade after Iraq became a democratic state, the country is once again battling nationwide violence and terrorism.

Stanford classicist and political scientist Josiah Ober sees the ongoing violence in Iraq and the difficulties encountered by democratic reformers in the Middle East as arising, in part, from mistaken modern notions of democracy.

Ober, who studies the history and practice of democracy, said he believes that efforts to democratize the Middle East in the mid-2000s were crippled by the flawed assumption that democracy would simply flow in to fill a political void.

Ober stressed, "There is a real danger in believing that democracy is good for everything, that it can readily give us everything that we want in terms of good government and the right kind of values and the right kind of moral and social order."

Ober warned that previously autocratic countries like Iraq face a great danger when adopting democratic institutions without first truly understanding what democracy means, what it is good for and not good for.

Ober's research draws from three varied sources: political theories by the likes of Aristotle and John Rawls; game theory; and the classical Athenian definition of democracy.

He pointed out that the term originally meant the capacity (kratos) of a people (demos) to accomplish things together.

Today, the term "democracy" is often, and incorrectly, used as a synonym and at times, equally incorrectly, as an antonym for constitutionalism, liberalism or republicanism, Ober said. With his current book project, A Theory of Democracy, he said he aims to "get clear about what we mean when we use the term 'democracy.'"

Misunderstanding what democracy is, Ober warned, can have tragic results. "After struggling through a pro-democratic revolution or some other difficult process of regime change, there will be a great deal of frustration and anger when [people] come to find they don't yet have what they thought they wanted."

Among the challenges faced by nascent democracies is the time it takes for democratic habits to form, Ober noted. When people have spent decades, maybe centuries, under autocratic rule, they have learned to be very distrustful of government and of other people within their society. Therefore, abiding by and enforcing the laws that protect civil liberties and keep elected officials accountable for their actions – particularly during times of crisis – can take a very long time to take root.

Insights from the ancients

As a historian and political theorist, Ober said he believes that it is his job to define the conditions necessary for democracy to flourish and the institutions and behaviors that can sustain it in the long term.

"The role of analysis," Ober said, "is to strip things down to the core and then build them back up again." And, as a historian, the way to achieve this is to go back to the past.

Ober, the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Professor in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis in the School of Humanities and Sciences, has extensively studied the relevance of ancient Greek democracy to the modern world.

In his most recent book, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Ober looked to ancient Athens to explore when democracy works well and why. He concluded that even though the democratic process consumes state resources, the benefits can far outweigh the costs because collective self-governance can lead to enduring prosperity and security.

In his current book project, which he worked on while a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center last year, Ober is once again illustrating how the study of democracy's origins can lead to new insights about our own world.

"Humans have not changed in their essential nature," Ober said. "To simply say the world has changed and we have nothing to learn from history is to cut ourselves off from a very large body of potentially useful lessons from the past."

Going back to Aristotle's theory of humans as "political animals," Ober posited that "basic democracy is good for human flourishing," in that it allows people to freely exercise their reason and communicate about what they ought to do, together, to make a better society.

Athenian-style democracy allows for the "collective and limited self-governance by an extensive and socially diverse body of citizens" which, Ober said, "can offer citizens security, material welfare and certain civic liberties."

But while human nature may not have changed much since the days of ancient Athens, expectations of what democracy should deliver have evolved.

Democracy and liberalism

The tenets of modern democracy have expanded to include the values of liberalism.

Modern liberal democracy evolved from the cultural and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment period in the 17th to 19th centuries. It was during this time that the concepts of inalienable human rights, popular sovereignty and utilitarian thought (the idea that what leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the right course of action) grew roots and influenced the development of American democracy.

The integration of modern liberalism with the more limited frame of Aristotelian democracy, Ober pointed out, is "a fundamental challenge for a modern political order."

To overcome this challenge, Ober employed game theory, the study of strategic decision-making often used in political and economic research.

Through simple games, Ober showed that over time people can develop habits of "working together to solve problems against a background of fair rules," resulting in a robustly democratic society. This includes habits that allow for dissent and encourage working together to protect vulnerable individuals and that recognize that short-term personal sacrifice can lead in the long term to common goods.

Under those conditions, Ober said, self-governance by citizens can support the robust human rights of a liberal democracy while promoting security and welfare. Ober said that this combination "is what many people in the world today hope for."

In the case of Iraq and other newly democratic states, the quick transition to democracy did not allow time or create the preconditions for the necessary societal habits to form. Ober warned that cases like this can lead to "crises that can have the terrible result of turning people against both democracy and liberalism."

Participation in a democratic society, Ober said, can ultimately "preserve the liberal values of liberty, equality and dignity." But that is unlikely to happen, he added, so long as people remain confused about what democracy is and what it takes to keep it.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,