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The Life and Death of Democracy Hardcover – August 17, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 992 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (August 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058352
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,021,225 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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); José Batlle y Ordóñez, 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. (Aug.)
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Review

“Starred Review. Traces democracy's roots back to Sumeria and follows its tendrils as far afield as Pitcairn Island and Papua New Guinea….engrossing profiles of obscure politicians and reformers…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.” (Publishers Weekly)

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Customer Reviews

This is no 5-star work.
Jason Goetz
It's a great history, and I know I'll be referring to it again in future.
Jennifer Cameron-Smith
If the metaphor doesn't illuminate, the author shouldn't make it.
Daniel Schut

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is an interesting, illuminating and entertaining look at democracy. It's also a sizeable read: at just under 1000 pages. John Keane's purpose in writing this book was to examine and appraise democracy, to look at its origins, its history, its purpose and practice.

John Keane traces the roots of democracy to the Myceneans of the Bronze Age, about a thousand years before it appeared in 5th century BCE Athens. He argues that it first arose in the East (Iran, Iraq and Syria) but it was in Athens that a recognisably democratic polis was shaped. In this form of assembly democracy, the communal gathering place (the agora) was critical. It was where, over two centuries, self-government was practised until ended by repeated Macedonian invasions.

After assembly democracy, a form of representative democracy began to emerge in Europe during the tenth century CE.
`The first parliament was born of despair. In March 1188 - Alfonso IX convened the first cortes in Léon.'

By the 16th century, many people were still indifferent to the idea of democracy, and even by the 18th century, support for the notion of representative democracy was not widespread. Early European parliaments were often exploited by monarchs, or (in cities like Florence and Venice) dominated by oligarchs and plutocrats. The execution of Charles I in England in the early 17th century changed the political horizon immeasurably. Keane notes that the American revolutionaries warned against an `excess of democracy' and it was James Madison's talk of `refining the popular appointments by successive filtrations' that pushed the Founding Fathers to accept a lower house based on popular election.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jason Goetz on May 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
So I will start off by saying that in tracing the roots of democracy back to Mesopotamia, Keane presents something new and unusual and of some significance to the overall history of the style of governance known as democracy. But beyond that this book is the absolute epitome of a book that is far too long and does not justify its length both in pages and time by its quality.

There are, from what I can tell, three major problems. The first is that there is no clarity. Democracy is not only not clearly defined, it takes so many different forms that it can't be treated as a coherent topic. And when discussing other forms of government--in particular republics--Keane simply ignores several important features which differentiate that from simply representative democracy. One oreason this happens is because he jumps time and space so fast and, while noting the influences that institutions from one place may have on institutions from another place later on, he does not note the differences in culture between, say, Britain and Spain that would make Britain far more conducive to democratic governance in the long-term. The Magna Carta is not mentioned in the chapter where he discusses the beginning of representative government and how kings were forced to in some sense cede power to smaller bodies or councils of nobles. While he does mention Alfonso IX convening councils, and then simply says the rest of Europe's parliamentary councils start there, that does not solve the problem of why Spain never remotely approached democracy until about forty years ago, whereas the American colonies claimed that King George III was violating their prerogative as British citizens two hundred and fifty years ago.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Schut on December 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Ever since this came out I yearned to buy it: who wouldn't want to read a full, comprehensive history of democracy, from its beginnings in Mesopotamia (!) to the present day?

But after reading it, I must say I'm thouroughly disappointed by the book, for the following two reasons:

1) Keane is a bad writer
Keane is a bad writer on both the sentence level as on the paragraph-chapter level. To begin with the latter: his chapters lack structure. The reader meanders with Keane through everything he could think of to pen down. This is not a comprehensive, thoughtful analysis of the interplay of history and democracy - this is Old Granpa Keane, puffing his pipe, looking ponderously out of his window, and then reciting every and whatever memory of 'democracy' that comes to mind.

On the sentence level, Keane writes like a highschool-kid attemtping his first poem. For example: Keane falls in love with his own metaphors; Towards the end of the book (I'm too lazy to search for the exact page in this unnecessarily huge book)he wants to launch a metaphor that the elements of his 'monitory democracy' spread and recombine "like DNA". That's an allright metaphor, but Keane then spends two full pages explaining it. This is a blatant violation of what a metaphor is supposed to achieve in works like this: they're suppose to facilitate understanding, not confound it. If the metaphor doesn't illuminate, the author shouldn't make it.

2) Keane is a bad political scientist/historian
Granted, Keane explicitly states that he won't give exact definitions, because he wants to examine the social construction of democracy throughout history. But that doesn't mean he can just write whatever he wants.
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