Democracy: A History of Ideas


202 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7748-0802-0
DDC 321.8'09





Reviewed by Eric P. Mintz

Eric P. Mintz is an associate professor of political science and
environmental studies at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial
University of Newfoundland.


Democracy, in the view of Professor DeWiel of the University of Northern
British Columbia, is characterized by value pluralism. That is, there
are fundamental disagreements about what is good with no consensus about
the priority that should be given to such values as liberty, equality,
and community. In an extensive review of Western philosophy, DeWiel
examines the development of the concepts of negative liberty (security
from the will of others so that one can fulfil one’s given human
nature) and positive liberty (the power to act so as to create one’s
own values). These differing perspectives are combined, uneasily, in the
dominant ideology of individualistic liberalism. Socialism applies the
idea of positive liberty in a collectivist way to try to create
solidarity. Conservatism shares with socialism a communitarian rather
than individualistic perspective, but sees community in terms of
maintaining the social order rather than in terms of remaking humans and
their social institutions. Each of these perspectives is worthy, in
DeWiel’s view, and thus the disagreements are irreconcilable.

This book does not deal with the standard topics of democratic theory
such as direct and representative democracy, elitist and participatory
democracy, the extension of the suffrage, and the responsiveness and
accountability of governments. Instead, inspired by the work of Isaiah
Berlin, DeWiel provides a challenging but focused examination of the
underpinnings of ideological conflict along with a useful
two-dimensional characterization of ideological conflict.

Some may question DeWiel’s assertions that democratic politics is
characterized by deep value divisions, that ideological politics is
politics at its best, and that democracy is based on Western values and
thus is culturally specific. But, overall, this is a significant work
that deserves a wide readership among the political science community.


DeWiel, Boris., “Democracy: A History of Ideas,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,