John Keane's The Life and Death of Democracy will inspire and shock its readers. Presenting the first grand history of democracy for well over a century, it poses along the way some tough and timely questions: can we really be sure that democracy had its origins in ancient Greece? How did democratic ideals and institutions come to have the shape they do today? Given all the recent fanfare about democracy promotion, why are many people now gripped by the feeling that a bad moon is rising over all the world's democracies? Do they indeed have a future? Or is perhaps democracy fated to melt away, along with our polar ice caps?
The work of one of Britain's leading political writers, this is no mere antiquarian history. Stylishly written, this superb book confronts its readers with an entirely fresh and irreverent look at the past, present and future of democracy. It unearths the beginnings of such precious institutions and ideals as government by public assembly, votes for women, the secret ballot, trial by jury and press freedom. It tracks the changing, hotly disputed meanings of democracy and describes quite a few of the extraordinary characters, many of them long forgotten, who dedicated their lives to building or defending democracy. And it explains why democracy is still potentially the best form of government on earth -- and why democracies everywhere are sleepwalking their way into deep trouble.
Looking beyond the Athens-Runnymede-Philadelphia axis, political scholar Keane (Tom Paine) traces democracy's roots back to Sumeria and follows its tendrils as far afield as Pitcairn Island and Papua New Guinea. (A revelatory chapter on India's "banyan democracy" suggests that democracy's center of gravity has shifted decisively eastward.) Less interested in theory than actuality, he gives Locke, Madison and their ilk short shrift to make room for engrossing profiles of obscure politicians and reformers medieval Spain's cortes (parliaments); Jos Batlle y Ord ez, president of Uruguay in the early 20th century; the Australian progressives who pioneered proportional representation and women's suffrage whose efforts built democracy from the ground up. Democracy thus emerges as less a set of fixed principles than a culture and mindset pragmatic, antiauthoritarian, accepting of change and contingency and the ability of ordinary people to shape them. Keane's lack of theoretical rigor sometimes tells; his vision of a developing "monitory democracy," characterized by a hypervigilant civil society, all-seeing media and "viral politics" seems more faddish than focused. But his study's broad sweep, wealth of detailed knowledge, shrewd insights and fluent, lively prose make it a must-read for scholars and citizens alike. Photos.