The Shortest History of Democracy

4,000 Years of Self-Government—A Retelling for Our Times

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Pub Date 06 Sep 2022 | Archive Date 20 Sep 2022

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From The Shortest History series comes the complete history of democracy, its champions, and its detractors—from the assemblies of ancient Mesopotamia to present perils

This tumultuous global story begins with democracy’s radical core idea: We can collaborate, as equals, to determine our own lives and futures. John Keane traces how this concept emerged and evolved, from the earliest “assembly democracies” to European-style electoral democracy to our present system of “monitory democracy.” Today, governments answer not only to voters on Election Day, but to intense public scrutiny (monitoring) every day. Keane calls this media- and communication-driven system “the most complex and vibrant form of democracy yet”—but it is not invulnerable.

We live in an age of political and environmental crisis, when despots in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere reject the promises of power-sharing. At this urgent moment, Keane’s book mounts a new defense of a precious global ideal.

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Advance Praise

“Shortest—and best! John Keane knows more about the history of democracy globally than one can imagine. Full of fascinating examples of democratic innovations from South Africa to Mongolia, Spain to Indonesia, and his concept of ‘monitory democracy’ is indispensable for understanding democracy today. Provocative, passionate, fun, and even a bit hopeful. Don’t miss it!”—Michael Schudson, professor of journalism and sociology, Columbia University

“A pragmatic, shining light to readers on radical democratic potential. This is the best, most readable book on the history of democracy published in the third millennium.”—Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus, University of Tokyo; eminent scholar professor and J. F. Oberlin professor (Tokyo); former assistant secretary general of the UN

“This is a remarkable book. It covers a vast historical landscape while also delivering intellectual depth. It draws on research and scholarship while remaining accessible and engaging. But most of all, it offers a hopeful history without being naive. Modest in size, incredibly ambitious in content.”—Matthew Flinders, professor of politics, University of Sheffield; vice president of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom

“For a brief shining moment, democracy seemed ascendent. Yet as distinguished political theorist John Keane demonstrates, democracy has a history but not necessarily a future. In concise and imaginative analysis, The Shortest History of Democracy outlines key variants of democracy and the many attempts to justify this messy, imperfect way of governing ourselves. Professor Keane argues for an ethic in which our very imperfections are reason to hold each other to account. An urgent, important book for a troubled time.”—Glyn Davis AC, emeritus professor of political science, University of Melbourne

“Shortest—and best! John Keane knows more about the history of democracy globally than one can imagine. Full of fascinating examples of democratic innovations from South Africa to Mongolia, Spain to...


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ISBN 9781615198962
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Featured Reviews

Short but by no means sparing in insights, research and analysis! This is a really useful history which is only too relevant as we see democracy challenged across the globe, I found the writing style very clear and pitched at a level which will suit all readers interested in this topic.

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In a short amount of space, John Keane is able to provide a detailed and nuanced history of different types of democracies and their strengths and weaknesses. Even more impressively, he is able to generate some pretty strong arguments that both dispel the myth that Greece created democracy along with the role of representative democracy and the future of democratic states. This might be too detailed as a primer for the subject, but if you want a short and well researched book on the topic, I would definitely recommend this book.

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The Shortest History of Democracy by John Keane is a short but concise history that goes into more depth than one might expect.

This little volume does more than just give a history, it also highlights the fact that democracy is not guaranteed to survive. In fact, it is through seeing how democracy has changed and evolved over the years, even at times into less desirable forms, that offers hope for its future. At turns uplifting and disconcerting, we are ultimately left with some hope even if it might seem like dark days indeed.

My favorite section was his explanation and analysis of monitory democracy. Keane offers some perspective that, while perhaps isn't new, is too often ignored or overlooked. But more than anything, even though this is a history, it is one that has an eye on the future and what that future might be. It is up to us to learn and start doing what we must to create the type of democracy we want.

Highly recommended for those wanting a brief history as well as those who want a big picture refresher to help them gain some grounded perspective on current events.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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