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The Life and Death of Democracy

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  128 ratings  ·  19 reviews

From Plato to de Tocqueville to Fukuyama—an epic history of the governing philosophy that has defined Western history.

In the grand tradition of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers comes this provocative history of world democracy, which begins with the ancient Myceans and ends in our fractious present. Overturning long-cherished notions, John Keane poses

Hardcover, 992 pages
Published August 17th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published June 1st 2009)
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Sep 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
This isn't the kind of book you can honestly call a good read – not unless, perhaps, you had a particular taste for the subject. It's thick and square and crammed with facts, not always as digestibly presented as they might be. The prose is not terribly elegant. And whatever your views on democracy, you will almost certainly, at one point or another, find yourself bemused, repelled or angered by what the author has to say.

As a 'good read', this book deserves two stars at best.

Yet this almost
Aug 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
An amazing book. As a political scientist and researcher from Palestine and the islamic world, I think this is the first modern book that give Muslims and Arabs credits for their historical role in fostering state and its current shape. It refutes the that Islam is not compatible with democracy... This book manifest the whole story of democracy on the mother earth from day one to 2050. I recommend every one to ready this book to learn how our modern political life was developed since Agora.
Brook Dixon
Dec 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Amazing knowledge and erudition by Keane, and I applaud his great learning, research and passion, which certainly has impressed upon me.

But ambition and scope prevailed. This book is at least 400 pages too long, spoiled by repetition and indulgent musing by the author. It reads at times like a set of lecture notes, written over many decades and stapled together to produce this tome.
Apr 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Keane writes from the perspective of a radical democrat who is worried that the best arguments in favour of democracy have not yet been made. What we get instead is a mess of confused advocacy heavily inflected with the national prejudices of this or that political elite which sees the contribution made by its own country to the cause of representative government as the thing which makes democracy itself truly great.

Arguments of this sort are just not good enough, according to Keane, and risk
Nimue Brown
Nov 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a huge book, in every sense. John Keane lays out the history of democracy from its earliest known routs In Mesopotamia (not Athens!) through to the state of play at the start of the 21st century. Rather than offering some easy, linear progress narrative, this book is full of diversity and divergence, experiments and failures. It is a stunning piece of work.

Most history is taught from a perspective of nation and country. As a consequence much of the history in here was unfamiliar to me.
Apr 03, 2011 rated it did not like it
this was the worst and now that I've finished the subject it was assigned for I'm putting it down halfway finished. so maybe it gets super great right after the bit I was reading and you should ignore this review. but basically, it's not scholarly in the slightest. (a wishy-washy non-committal tone does not a scholarly work make.) crucially, it's never defined what democracy was or why we should want it, it just assumed that western liberal democracy is The Dream and everything else is Archaic ...more
Timothy Cooper
May 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Awesome, beginning to end. It demystifies the evolution of democracy across the planet, offering sobering reflections and guarded optimism about its tentative and uneasy presence in a world implicated by political turmoil and vast uncertainty. I had to read it twice to appreciate its breadth and scope. But once will do, however. Read it to witness the past, present and perhaps future of democracy.
Samuel Hilton
May 30, 2018 rated it it was ok
Total failure to engage with American foreign policy in this book.
Jun 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It has never taken me this long to read a book, but what a book. A fascinating 900-page read about democracy, driven by multiple political and historical perspectives. I feel like I should read it again as the first time round one’s brain can become a little foggy with the volume of material, insights and ways of thinking the author presents. There are some beautifully written passages and little nuggets of lyrical/intellectual gold. I can’t say it’s an easy book to read but it’s definitely ...more
Jonathan Madison
Jan 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
An excellent attempt to catalogue the history of democracy. The task is enormous and this book does a decent job of addressing it.
Daniel Carr
Mar 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Note on rating: I'd give 5 stars to Parts 1-2, and 2 Stars to the remainder of the book.

This book is a marathon, one that I had to take periodic breaks from in order to sustain my interest, but was ultimately worth it.

The book has an important central message: democracy is fragile and is not fated to occur by some underlying evolutionary force as many now believe. As Keane puts it: "That's how it was: no clear-cut laws of motion, no regular patterns, just higgledy-piggledy breakthroughs and
Jennifer (JC-S)
Feb 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jennifer (JC-S) by:
Shelves: librarybooks
‘The subject of democracy is full of enigmas, confusions, things that are supposed to be true.’

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
Dec 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Great history of democracy. Challenges many long standing myths about the origins of democracy and shows that it has been greatly shaped by non-Western, non-secular ideas
Jul 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love how Keane puts the history of the USA into the context of the history of Democracy. The US started out as an undemocratic republic, evolved into "representative democracy" in the Jacksonian period, and became a sham democracy early in the 20 century, run not by the people, but by persuaders, like Edward Bernays, who figured out how to manipulate the masses through advertising, public relations, propaganda, and other dark arts of persuasion informed by modern psychology and an ...more
Enormous book that delves deeply into the origins of democracy and gives a most thorough account of its history. Charts its journey throughout time to modernday and ponders the question of what form of democracy now exists and how it adapts and changes. Mostly accessible and certainly a lot lighter in prose that some of the terribly dry stuff about.
Leo Rees-murphy
Feb 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
One of the most beautifully written non-fiction works that I have read.
Matthew da Silva
May 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Oct 17, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Heavy going but well worth the effort to better understand the idea of democracy. And why it matters so much. And why we can't take it for granted. Eternal vigilance.
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