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The Shortest History of Democracy

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

By John Keane

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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“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
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September 06, 2022