- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: PublicAffairs (August 5, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1586486640
- ISBN-13: 978-1586486648
- Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,193,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government
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From Publishers Weekly
Democracy, until recently, was an anomaly in a landscape of monarchies, dictatorships and empires; its critics—including America's founding fathers—associated it with mob rule and demagogic tyranny. In this engaging treatise, Mandelbaum (The Ideas That Conquered the World) explains how the modern democratic fusion of popular sovereignty—i.e., majority rule—with individual liberty came to dominate the world's polities. His first reason is straightforward: democracy works. Democratic nations, he notes, especially the flagship democracies of Britain and the U.S., are wealthier, stronger and more stable and inspire other countries to emulate them. His second, more provocative explanation, is that the modern spread of free markets provides a school for democracy by establishing private property (the fundamental liberty), respect for law, civil society, organized economic interests as the forerunners of political parties, and the habit of settling differences by negotiation and compromise rather than violence. Mandelbaum's market rhetoric—he calls democracy the leading brand of political system among knowledgeable political consumers—can be a bit simpleminded. But readers will find a lucid, accessible blend of history, political science and sociology, with a wealth of fresh insights into the making of the contemporary world. (Aug.)
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"Mandelbaum argues....spreading democracy is as much a matter of culture as it is of politics." -- Newsday.com, March 2, 2007
"[An] excellent and broadly accessible new book." -- The Weekly Standard, October 22, 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
I agree completely with the author's first point. A tabulation of the relative standards of living in different parts of the world usually shows the highest standards of living occur in areas with the most-democratic regimes. This conclusion is applicable whether one takes the snapshot in 2000 AD, 1000 AD, or 1000 BC. The author argues that this correlation between wealth and democracy is due to the principles of the free market (exchange of goods and ideas, private property, etc...) that are needed to generate the former, also happen to instigate the latter. This might be correct, but the author misses a potentially bigger reason; and that is democracy offers a fair and practical method of choosing political leaders. All other methods of choosing leaders often end up as civil wars, revolutions or coups; and nothing destroys wealth better than violence. Hence the direct correlation between democracy and wealth is not necessarily via the free market and private property. Instead, it is because democracy provides a path around violent, wealth-destroying, succession struggles.
I disagree with the author's 2nd point, which is democracy does not come naturally. Studies of primitive societies throughout the world, such as the Native Americans of North America, consistently demonstrate that direct democracy was the prevalent form of government prior to European colonization. However, this democracy was usually practiced orally. For example, written documents from early explorers and missionaries describe how a given tribe of several hundred members would often discuss an issue (i.e. whether or not to war with a neighboring tribe) at great lengths that involved every adult member. Discussions happened face-to-face and hence decision-making was devoid of pamphlets, TV commercials, billboards, radio-ads and other manifestations of propaganda that is all too common in representative democracies. This is where the author either ignores or is oblivious to the truth. Direct democracy was actually a very prevalent form of government. Societies that practiced it were gradually wiped out, absorbed or marginalized by colonial extension of European monarchies. The latter (colonies and home nations) in turn evolved into representative democracies, often in fits and starts.
I believe the author's last conclusion is blatantly wrong and shows an incomplete understanding of 20th century history. The US and UK are not the world's best examples of democracy. The UK still has a taxpayer-funded monarchy that happens to own some of the most valuable real-estate in that nation. Likewise, the US has consistently maintained the highest incarceration rate among all democracies over the past 20 - 30 years. Even if one were to attribute both characteristics to voters' choices in each respective country, this still ignores one highly undemocratic feature in each country. For the UK, it is the relations between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Currently they are peaceful, but going back just 30 years saw routine violence between England and Northern Ireland over sovereignty that stretched back centuries.
For the US, it is the high amount of inconsistencies in voting results at all levels. Whether it be the registering of dead people, voter intimidation, destruction of uncounted ballets, forgery of votes, and outright miscounting, the American system of holding elections and tallying votes is probably the most error-prone in the industrialized world. Forget about the 2000 presidential election and Florida. One can look at LBJ's political rise as documented in Robert Caro's multi-volume biography. Or look across the political aisle at Nixon and Watergate; notice the scandal came out AFTER he got elected to a 2nd term. Probably the best testament to my point is the constant recounts of elections. Whether it is the 2008 Congressional elections or previous Congressional elections, one can find numerous races that took 2 or more recounts to decide, often with a different winner declared after each recount.
I think a better set of candidates for the world's role models of democracy would be the Scandinavian countries. From Iceland in the West to Finland in the East, the Scandinavian countries have lower incarceration rates, stronger protection of civil liberties, provide higher rates of public financing of civil institutions necessary for democracy such as schools, courts, and social welfare programs. The Scandinavian countries also do a much better job of separating commercial interests and government pressure from influencing the mass media. This last point is poignantly demonstrated by the passive complicity in which the American media (Fox News, MSNBC, Wall Street Journal, Time, etc...) believed the Bush Administrations lies about Iraq's WMD. Probably the best example of Scandinavia's leadership among democracies is their strong support for diplomacy, human rights, and open borders for political refugees.
Another miss by the author is the contribution by entities residing in democracies to the creation and maintenance of dictatorships (heredity or idealogical) in other countries. Again the best examples are the UK and US. The Saudi dynasty on the Arabian peninsula was created and rests on American power; see the novel Cities of Salt for evidence. Likewise the Nazis' rise to power was financially supported by US banks and corporations such as Ford, GM, IBM, and Standard Oil.
My final criticism of the book is the numerous fallacies in the text. Probably the most relevant example is the author's discussion of terrorism and democracy, and the author's specific statement that established democracies like the US and UK do not support terrorism. I guess if one were to narrowly define terrorism as the smashing of planes into buildings, then the author is correct. There is no evidence that the US and UK have ever supported the smashing of planes into crowded buildings. However, if one were to use the conventional definition of terrorism, i.e. the use of violence against civilians to achieve political goals, the author's statement is flat out wrong. Both the US and UK have actively supported terrorists and terrorism throughout the 20th century. Lets leave aside the UK for now and focus on the US, seeing that the author and I are both American. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the executive branch of the US government has provided money, weapons and training to thousands of violent bullies in Latin America as long as the latter professed anti-communism. Many of them used their wealth and weaponry to terrorize civilians through torture, rape, kidnappings and murder. Former Panamanian leader Manual Noriega is a good example. Trained in Fort Benning, Georgia, the US then released him onto the people of Panama whereupon he bullied them for over a decade until he sided with the wrong drug dealer, and imposed the wrath of President G. Bush. Another good example is the Afghan war of the 1980's. Call them freedom fighters then, but the tactics they used were hallmarks of terrorism. Many of them eventually made their way into urban capitals worldwide and became terrorists by anyone's definition.
So overall, this book has a lot of mistakes in it. There are better works to read to understand the spread and success of democracy in the latter decades of the 20th century.
Professor Mandelbaum is masterful in providing the reader with a clear, concise and wholly enjoyable history of democracy while explaining the interrelationship of democracy with free markets, international trade and how democracy determines whether we live in a world at war or we have peace. After reading this fine book one not only feels more optimistic about the future but you are well educated with an understanding of the basis for such optimism. Perhaps of equal importance, this book explains the risks to existing democracies and the factors that will determine whether democracy thrives or withers around the globe. The insights regarding Russia, China and the Arab world help explain the situation in those areas today and the potential outcomes for them in the future.
This is a fact filled book written is a highly entertaining style that ties together a multitude of issues. For anyone interested in the future of our world this is a book you must read at least once (it is so interesting and such a pleasure to read that I am now reading it a second time).
While this book is at times sloppy on presenting evidences, it is certainly not shy on articulating the main ideas. The introduction not only defines many important concepts, but also provides the historical and theoretical context to relate all those concepts together. For example, he defines democracy as a fusion of two political traditions: "liberty— individual freedom; and popular sovereignty— rule by all the people" (p. xiii). Immediately he was able to leverage on the definition to highlight the conflicts between these two traditions and why they make an "odd couple" (p. 16), a metaphor that he will come back again and again throughout the book. And then he makes similar maneuvers repeatedly to drive his points home. I found this method of 'idea spawning' to be very effective in giving new life to an otherwise rather dull subject.
As for his main thesis, it sounds simple enough: "Democracy did eventually spread, largely because the countries where it flourished became unusually successful and therefore served as attractive models for others to emulate." (p. xiv) These successful countries happen to be victors of the two World Wars and the Cold War. According to Mandelbaum, the First World War illegitimised the rule of monarchy and empire, and gave rise to popular sovereignty. However, this doesn't automatically secure a place for democracy because "nominal democracies" (p. 32) were also born alongside as competing ideologies. A nominal democracy governs in the name of people, but offers no representation and does not protect liberty. By successfully defending themselves in the Second World War, genuine democracies discredited this rival political tradition found on inequality and oppression and give democracy the good name as claimed in the book's title. Finally, the Cold War established liberty-protecting representative democracies that embraced free-market economies as the victors. This is important because, according to Mandelbaum's theory, a free-market economy serves as a "school for democracy". Through the training of free markets, institutions that mediate between the public and the government are built, and the necessary skills and values are cultivated among the people to enable a genuine democracy to function. The victory of free-market economies lends support to his theory why free-market economies are not only good but also almost necessary for democracies to succeed. After that, the "wealth effect" (p. 100) took over: the poorer countries embraced democracy partly because they wanted to imitate the successful formula of the rich countries, and partly because they were required to convert to democracy as a pre-condition of joining important organizations, such as the European Union. The first three chapters wrap up at this point, and basically conclude the "Rise" part of subtitle rather splendidly.
Chapter 4 and the first part of Chapter 5 aim to explore the "Risk" part of the title. Unfortunately, Chapter 4 relies too heavily on the "democratic peace" thesis, which asserts that democratic countries tend to avoid wars against one another. Since I regard this theory as utter nonsense, I only skimmed over this portion in disappointment. But that's just me. Chapter 5 reiterates the point that a necessary condition for democracy to succeed is "the people of that country must acquire the habit of tolerance... and the skills to manage an effective legal system". Unfortunately the author gave this seemingly reasonable proposition an warranted twist in the second part of Chapter 5, which is basically a series of case studies on why democracy failed to take root in Russia, China, and the Muslim and Arab-speaking countries. He was too willing to assume these cultures do not value— at least do not practice— tolerance and laws. Occasionally he blames the U.S. for rushing the democratization campaign so much that it created suspicion among the people whom they seek to gain cooperation. But he tends to frame it as good intention poorly executed, and is not critical at all against his own government. In contrast, his tone against the "case study" countries is a lot harsher. He also recites nationalism way too often to explain away the failure of democracy. Based on that he makes the implausible implication that democracy will flourish once the status quo stops stirring up nationalism. However, this at least contradicts his case study on China because the communist China government always sees nationalism a threat to their power, and keeps it in check most of the time. So his theory has trouble to explain at least one case. This makes me can't help but wonder whether his understanding of politics in Russia and the Arab world is equally superficial.
In summary, I have very mixed feelings about this book. Its writing style deserves at least 4 stars; but its scholarship is really in the 2-star range— even for a current events book that targets the non-academic, general public. I finally decided to give a 3. With that said, I would like to congratulate the publisher, PublicAffairs, for delivering a fine book. It is well edited and well printed. Both the cover pages and the interior pages are made of paper of high quality. The fonts are printed in reasonably big sizes, unlike most political science books that try to bore readers to death (or blindness) by printing the main text in nearly footnote sizes. I hope they will continue to find good writers like Mandelbaum to produce more good books on the subject. I also hope the author will have the chance to revise this otherwise wonderful book by filling the holes and balancing the biases.