The Shortest History of Democracy: 4,000 Years of Self-Government—A Retelling for Our Times (Shortest History Series) (Paperback)
The full chronological sweep of democracy, from the assemblies of ancient Mesopotamia and Athens to present perils around the globe. The Shortest History books deliver thousands of years of history in one riveting, fast-paced read.
This compact history unspools the tumultuous global story that began with democracy’s radical core idea: We can collaborate, as equals, to determine our own futures. Acclaimed political thinker John Keane traces how this concept emerged and evolved, from the earliest “assembly democracies” in Syria-Mesopotamia to European-style “electoral democracy” and to our uncertain present.
Today, thanks to our always-on communication channels, governments answer not only to voters on Election Day but to intense scrutiny every day. This is “monitory democracy”—in Keane’s view, the most complex and vibrant model yet—but it’s not invulnerable. Monitory democracy comes with its own pathologies, and the new despotism wields powerful warning systems, from social media to election monitoring, against democracy itself.
At this urgent moment, when despots in countries such as China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia reject the promises of democratic power-sharing, Keane mounts a bold defense of a precious global ideal.
About the Author
John Keane is currently Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). He is the author of many acclaimed books, most recently The New Despotism (2020) and To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism (2021, with Debasish Roy Chowdhury).
“In this fast-paced and engaging book, Keane tells the story of societies across the ancient and modern eras struggling for self-government. . . . An odyssey, full of twists and turns, crises, and reinventions."—Foreign Affairs
“Democracy itself, the essential foundation of America, is in serious trouble. To the rescue comes this wonderfully comforting and beautifully written long-view historical narrative. . . . This slim volume is a fine read from a gifted author.”—Booklist
“The title suggests “short,” but do not be deluded, dear readers, the chapters are crammed with detail and strewn with classic and modern terminology inviting a demanding and exciting exercise.”—City Book Review
“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
“A concise and informative history of democracy . . . packs far-flung details into . . . a provocative and enlightening survey of democracy’s ever-shifting nature.”—Publishers Weekly
“Underwrite an overview of a complicated topic with one of these new short-and-sweet distillations. . . with maps, charts, sidebars, and illustrations to bring it alive.”—Mosaic, Morgan Stanley