The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies

A Response to Tocqueville's Challenge
Vincent Ostrom
Considers the social requirements for a thriving democracy


We struggle in the modern age to preserve individual freedoms and social self-government in the face of large and powerful governments that lay claim to the symbols and language of democracy, according to Vincent Ostrom.

Arguing that democratic systems are characterized by self-governing—not state- governed—societies, Ostrom contends that the nature and strength of individual relationships and self-organizing behavior are critical to the creation and survival of a democratic political system. Ostrom begins with a basic contradiction identified by Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville suggested that if citizens acted on the basis of their natural inclinations they would expect government to provide for them and take care of their needs. Yet these conditions contradict what it means to be self-governing. Ostrom explores the social and cultural context necessary for a democratic system to flourish emphasizing the important role of ideas and the use of language in defining and understanding political life. Discussing differences in the ideas about social organization among various cultural and intellectual traditions, he considers the difficulties encountered over time in building democratic societies in America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. He outlines lessons from these experiences for the efforts to build democracy in the developing world and the countries emerging from communism.

Based on a lifetime of thinking about the social conditions necessary to support a democracy, this book makes a significant contribution to the recent discussion about civil society and the fragility of our formal and informal social institutions and will be of interest to social scientists, historians and all readers concerned with the state of democracy in the modern world.

Vincent Ostrom is Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science Emeritus and Co-Director of the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University. He is the author of many works on political theory and public administration.

Praise / Awards

  • "Primarily, the effort is a highly personal, and provocative, diagnosis of American democracy at the end of the century and the millennium. Public-choice theorists, along with more conventional political scientists, will find their established convictions and presuppositions challenged. The book warrants the investment required to work through and think seriously about Vincent Ostrom's response to Tocqueville."
    —James M. Buchanan, Public Choice

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 360pp.
  • 2 tables, 1 figure.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 1997
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08456-2

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  • $39.95 U.S.