John Keane | Why History Matters for Democracy
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Why History Matters for Democracy

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Abstract: In this critical commentary, John Keane defends, extends, and reasserts the role of history in democratic theory through an articulation of seven methodological rules: (1) treat the remembrance of things past as vital for democracy’s present and future; (2) regard the languages, characters, events, institutions, and effects of democracy as a thoroughly historical way of life and handling of power; (3) pay close attention to the ways in which the narration of the past by historians, leaders, and others is unavoidably a time-bound, historical act; (4) see that the methods that are most suited to writing about the past, present, and future of democracy draw attention to the peculiarity of their own rules of interpretation; (5) acknowledge that, until quite recently, most details of the history of democracy have been recorded by its critics; (6) note that the negative tone of most previous histories of democracy confirms the rule that tales of its past told by historians often harbor the prejudices of the powerful; and (7) admit that the task of thinking about the past, present, and future of democracy is by definition an unending journey. There can be no Grand Theory of Democracy.

Keywords: democracy, democratic theory, future, history, methods

Why History?

Reports of the coming death of democracy may be greatly exaggerated, but most thinkers of democracy are well aware of the mounting global evidence that bright hopes for its future are currently fading. Observers are pinning the blame on out-of-touch governments and corrupt media and politicians; they also cite biased courts, heavy-handed policing, and big corporations and sluggish economies that are widening the gaps be- tween rich and poor. Thinkers of democracy are also aware that millions of disaffected citizens are attracted to the new populism of Rodrigo Duterte, Marine Le Pen, Andrej Babiš, and other demagogues and that their at- traction is not just mindless but also rooted in plausible feelings of being dragged down by political and economic dissatisfaction and by anger at the broken promises, the felt injustices, disorder, and decline. Thinking democrats are alert to the fact that public disaffection with democracy is not the whole story and that there are citizens who remain optimistic, who hope against hope that the demise of democracy can be reversed, that things can be improved, helped by a change of government and political reforms. Global surveys show they are often in the minority, as in the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, the heartland state of a global empire, where more than seven in ten citizens, peering into the future, predict that the gap between rich and poor in their society is going to widen, their leaders will fail to solve the country’s biggest problems, and that the global influence of the United States will continue to shrink (Keane 2013, 2018; Parker, Morin, and Horowitz 2019).

At least some of these deep-seated decadent trends were anticipated in The Life and Death of Democracy, my thousand-page history of democracy published a decade ago and more recently in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and other translations (Keane 2009). The book made a case for fresh thinking about democracy by focusing on the historical roots of the present-day disillusionment with the ideals and substance of democracy. Pippa Norris, who until recently saw only “trendless fluctuations” and “democratic deficits” (2011: 3ff), was among several reviewers who claimed its tone was unnecessarily pessimistic – more death than life. The truth is that the book erred on the side of hopefulness. In such matters as the rise of a new global Chinese empire and the market strangleholds exercised by reckless banking and credit institutions, it failed fully to grasp the gravity of the global threats and challenges now confronting democracy. It was gripped nonetheless by a strong sense that contemporary democracies are endangered by institutional dysfunctions and political forces that reject – even hate – its power-sharing dynamics. It noted how these forces – populist demagogues, for instance – speak the language of democracy yet experience delight at the inconvenience and suffering of their victims, as well as why hubris and the abuse of power are flourishing in present-day democracies.

When emphasizing the fragile vulnerability of democracies, such as those in India, Argentina, and the United States, The Life and Death of Democracy played the role of time’s advocate. It set out to sharpen readers’ sense that time past is time present and time future so as to convince them, as the world’s clocks tick, and as each sunrise gives way to each new sunset, that the history of democracy is unfinished business. The

book is a history of now. It beckons readers to fix eyes in the back of their heads in order to see more clearly the deeper dynamics and long-term significance of what is currently happening. It aims to remind them that those who are ignorant of the past invariably misunderstand the present. It tries to persuade them that things present are connected to things past and to convince them that knowledge of past events can help clarify visions of the future. In this period of turbulence and uncertainty, the book maintained, history really matters and does so for several reasons.

Most obviously, by paying attention to things past, The Life and Death of Democracy introduces readers to a cast of unfamiliar characters, events, and institutions who wield their own charm and command fascination and present-day significance. The Life and Death of Democracy can be read as a type of psychoanalysis that puts democracy on the couch. Readers are introduced to many interesting ancestors they would not otherwise meet in their lives. It provides readers with fresh details of the obscure origins of old ideals and institutions like votes for women, government by public assembly, the abolition of slavery, the secret ballot, trial by jury, and parliamentary representation. Those curious about these and other institutions of what we now call democracy – political parties, compulsory voting, judicial review, referenda, electoral colleges, civil society, press freedom, bio-democracy experiments – will find much to interest them here. So, too, will those with a sense of wonder about the changing, often hotly disputed meanings of democracy, or the origins of its key terms, or the cacophony of conflicting reasons that have been given through time for why it is a good thing, or why the great thing about democracy is that it gives voters a chance to do stupid things, and other jokes at its expense. Among the very best jokes about democracy, said Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, is that it gives its enemies the means to destroy it. More than a few pages of the book dwell on that point. They show readers that history is less than an almanac of inspiration and how and why several times in the past local democracies stumbled and fell and never recovered. The Life and Death of Democracy in this sense is a tract that doubles as an early-warning detector. Nietzsche once remarked that thinking should have the fragrance of a wheat field on a summer’s night. Not always, though, because in the case of thinking about democracy it also has the obligation to sound alarms at the foolish mistakes that leaders, institutions, and citizens have made in the past and may be making again in the present or in the near future. Yet The Life and Death of Democracy shows as well that history is not necessarily storytelling that stands on the side of catastrophes that leave democracy buried under piles of rubble, as Walter Benjamin once wrote. It is not just epitaphs, tales of defeat and ruin of dangerous democrats recorded in prose, and footnotes. To paraphrase Voltaire, history is not necessarily the sound of silk slippers upstairs and wooden clogs below. Far from being a sequence of horrors, the trampling of losers into the dust, the storytelling of historians can come to the defense of underdogs. History can inspire – motivate people to prepare for the worst so that they can take advantage of what they have and what comes their way in order to build a better democratic future for themselves and others.

Much less obvious is a profound and far-reaching reason why the study of democracy history matters. It is that the forces of democracy have not only helped produce history as we know it by calling into question and overthrowing monarchs, tyrants, corrupt states, and whole empires. It can also be said – here’s a paradox – that democracy helped make history possible. Understood simply as people collectively governing their own lives, democracy implied something that continues to have a radical bite: it supposed that humans could self-consciously invent institutions specially designed to allow them to decide for themselves, as equals, how they would live together on Earth. The whole thing may seem rather straightforward, but think about the point for a moment. The thought that breathing, blinking mortals could organize themselves as equals into forums or assemblies, where they pause to consider things, then decide on a course of action – democracy in this sense was a spine-tingling invention because it was in effect the first-ever human form of government. All government is of course “human” in the simple sense that it is created and built up and operated by human beings. The exceptional thing about the type of government called democracy is that it demanded that people see that nothing that is human is carved in stone, that everything is built on the shifting sands of time and place and that, therefore, in order not to give themselves over to tyrants, monarchs, and despots, they would be wise to build and maintain ways of living together as equals, openly and flexibly. Democracy required that people see through talk of gods and nature and claims to privilege based on superiority of brain or blood. Democracy meant the denaturing of power. It implied that the most important political problem is how to prevent rule by the few or by the rich or powerful who claim to be “naturally” fit to rule or who act as if they are mortal deities. Democracy solved this perennial problem by standing up for a political order that ensured that the matter of who gets what, when, and how should be permanently an open question. Democracy recognized that although people were not angels or gods or goddesses, they were at least good enough to prevent some humans from thinking they were. The flipside was clear: because people are not an- gels, democracy is necessary because nobody can be trusted to rule over others. Democracy was to be government of the humble, by the humble, for the humble. It meant self-government among equals, the lawful rule of an assembly of people whose sovereign power to decide things was no longer to be given over to imaginary gods, to the stentorian voices of tradition, to despots, to those in the know or simply handed over to the everyday habit of laziness, unthinkingly allowing others to decide matters of importance.


Methodological Rules

In making a case for building time into political thinking about democracy, The Life and Death of Democracy inevitably took issue with some previous approaches in the study of democracy. The last person to attempt a full-scale history of democracy was Nahum Capen (1804–1886), an American historian, publisher, and self-taught polymath who reportedly la- bored on the subject for thirty-five years. Capen’s toils were interrupted by a civil war, a book-selling and printing business (his authors included Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne), and by deep involvement in the political affairs of the Democratic Party. His plans for a three-volume history of democracy were complicated as well by a political gift from the fifteenth president of the United States, James Buchanan Jr.: his appointment (in 1857) as postmaster at the city of Boston. Given the interruptions, it came as no surprise to one of his friends that although he was still going strong at eighty, “thinking vigorously and writing pointedly  as ever,” Capen never managed to complete his manuscript. Only part of it was published, as a book of nearly seven hundred pages, The History of Democracy: Or, Political Progress, Historically Illustrated, from the Earliest to the Latest Periods (1874).

Packed with intriguing details and especially strong on the history of political and legal ties binding the United States to its former British rulers, Capen’s study of the history of democracy, perhaps the first ever published in modern times, proved to be a hard act to follow. But I felt   it necessary to follow in his footsteps, if only to correct his unashamed Anglo-American bias. Researching and writing in completely different historical circumstances, under a mountain of new material of virtually unmanageable complexity, I set out to realize my goal: replacing Capen’s history with an entirely fresh and certainly less partisan account of a topic that has since grown from being a trans-Atlantic preoccupation to a subject of global importance.

Capen’s history of democracy saw its subject with nineteenth-century American eyes. It was neglectful of the ancient world of assembly democracy (and openly contemptuous of the “pride and vanity” and “licentious habits” of Athens). It was silent about the complex origins of representative government in continental Europe and (characteristic of its times) ignorant of important contemporary developments in the former Spanish colonies and parts of the British Empire. Written by a respected public figure who had been a willing quill of the Democratic Party since at least the time of the American military invasion of Mexico in 1846–1848, The History of Democracy was motivated by a strong sense of the expanding regional power of the United States, its triumph over domestic and geopolitical adversity, and its breakthrough to an exciting new world of representative democracy. The book’s central preoccupation was to heal the hurt caused by the horrors of the Civil War. It set out to convince its American readers that the nineteenth-century progress of democracy in the world, especially its triumph in the United States of America, was guaranteed by “the sublime truths of Christianity.” Democracy was “limited to no season, age, or nation.” It had an assured future, simply be- cause it was a worldly expression of God’s inscrutable design.

Capen was not alone in thinking in this way; his contemporary, the French aristocrat-turned-democrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked more than once that the democratic revolution of modern times, led by events     in the United States, was ultimately protected by the Hand of God (Tocqueville 1986: 1663–1664). Many other avowed democrats of the mid-nineteenth century agreed. This was obviously not my starting point, and in    fact I quickly became convinced that my subject demanded a fundamental rethink of what would be required in trying to write a new history of democracy. Although The Life and Death of Democracy recognizes that when it comes to such institutions as voting by lot, the mosque and  parliaments, democracy has had much to do with people’s faith in the sacred, I doubted that a faith beyond history – or a metaphysical escape from time into a world of eternal essences – was the key to understanding democracy. I rejected just as firmly the opposite view, that human history is a massive jigsaw puzzle for which there are no meaningful interpretations,  or that history is an unintelligible nightmare so riddled with unthinking dogma and the blind will to power that (as W. H. Auden and others once recommended), it is best left to itself. I was sure of only one thing: the existing rules of writing about democracy and its history had to be bro-  ken. The customary amnesia of data-driven political science needed to be challenged. Crusty silences needed to be shattered. A full-scale history of democracy required new methodological rules.

The first rule is obvious: treat the remembrance of things past as vital for democracy’s present and future. Soon after beginning The Life and Death of Democracy, for a string of connected reasons, I grew convinced that the word “history” should be posted on the mirrors or doorframes of all thinkers of democracy, to serve as a daily reminder that time’s arrow does not fly in straight lines and that today and tomorrow depend upon yesterday. I began to think of my project as an exercise in extending votes to a constituency without a voice: the dead. It is in the spirit of enfranchising the past that the book makes a sustained case for bridging the gap between philosophy, politics, and history. With eyes on both the past and the future, it reminds its readers that things of this world never last forever – that whatever teleological thinkers such as Nahum Capen and Francis Fukuyama might say, democracy as we know it has no built-in guarantees of survival. Less obviously, the book shows how and why democracy and history are conjoined twins. It demonstrates the many vital ways in which, right from the beginning, democracy in action stirred    up people’s sense of the historical contingency of power relations – for instance, by showing that tyrants and monarchs were not necessary in human affairs, or that prevailing opinions could legitimately be challenged and changed (through such mechanisms as constitutional conventions, judicial review, and liberty of the press), or that the sky would not collapse if women, slaves, and the poor were treated as the political and social equals of their former masters.

The book shows that for the sake of the future, much can be learned – or unlearned – from the past. Familiarity with things past can suggest what should not be done in the present or in the future; at a minimum,  it can stick a pin into the backside of those who denounce democracy as a political sickness or try instead to crown democracy with garlands of bogus praise, for example, for the way it supposedly heals social tensions or generates peace and economic growth. The Life and Death of Democracy also aims to arouse readers’ sense of marvel at the magical moments in which democracy was born or matured or died. It recalls forgotten characters – individuals whose words and deeds are today still capable of inspiring us in matters of democracy. The book further supposes that the act of grappling with the history of democracy makes us much more sensitive to the novelties of our times. The working formula used by the book is straightforward: people inevitably misunderstand the present when they live in ignorance of the past. In every line the book therefore tries to impress on readers that the future of democracy depends upon the past, which is always at work in the present, and it reminds them of what we would collectively lose if the world foolishly allowed democracy to slip through its hands, to wither away, or to be killed off by its present- day opponents.

The book is structured by a second methodological rule: regard the languages, characters, events, institutions, and effects of democracy as riddled with time, as a thoroughly historical way of life and handling of power. Democracy is neither a naturally occurring substance nor a God- given universal. It is both a precipitate of particular times and places as well as a powerful contributor to people’s grasp of the time-bound quality of their lives. This double-jointed quality of democracy, its dependence upon time and its role as a great driver of people’s sense of their own historicity, may seem obvious, but the astonishing fact is that many people today still don’t think of democracy in this way. They take democracy for granted, as if it were timeless, or (which amounts to the same thing) they treat it as if it were the foregone conclusion of prior events, as Francis Fukuyama unhelpfully did in teleological terms in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

The presumption that time doesn’t matter and that democracy is a given part of the natural or evolutionary order of things is today encountering storm and stress in virtually all so-named democracies, yet it continues to run deep in scholarly circles. In the course of my career, encounters with scholars whose regard for democracy as a historical way of life has been the exception, not the rule. The fine works of Nadia Urbinati, Hanna Pitkin, Pierre Rosanvallon, Ashis Nandy, and Jürgen Habermas are among these noble exceptions. For a large majority of analysts of democracy, the history of democracy is treated either as uninteresting or irrelevant. Various factors have conspired to reinforce scholars’ ignorance of democracy’s past. The heavy reliance of academic researchers upon state- and foundation-funded empirical methods geared toward producing “data” has produced a whole generation of amnesiacs. It is not only that the data-collection methods related to democracy are a recent invention (of the 1920s) and that they enter mainstream academic research only with such American classics as Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man (1960) and The Civic Culture (1963), an important study by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba that I used to guide my very first writing (an honors dissertation) on democracy; aside from their dependence on naïve correspondence understandings of “truth,” the problem with much of the empirical and comparative research that these books helped to inspire is that the study of democracy is confined largely to our times and very often to a limited number of cases for which “data” is available. The historicity of the present is thus concealed or admitted glibly as a limitation of the data. The scholarly amnesia has been compounded by other university habits: teaching the “classic” authors and texts of democracy without regard for their original context and fashionable academic controversies that pay little or no attention to their own time-bounded character (rows over the merits of “participatory democracy” and, more recently, “deliberative democracy,” “agonistic democracy,” and the “quality of democracy” are cases in point). The combined effect of these different fashions and fads has yielded very strange results: research into the way of governing and living life known as democracy suffers numbness toward time and a loss of feeling for how democracy stimulates people’s sense of the historicity of power. Thinking about democracy induces anesthesia. The paralysis helps explain why no comprehensive history of the language and institutions of democracy has been attempted for a very long time – and why, in the scholarly study of democracy, there is still no work on the subject comparable to what has been produced in other social science fields by figures such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

Rule number three: pay close attention to the ways in which the narration of the past by historians, leaders and others is unavoidably a time- bound, historical act, which is to say that their accounts of the history   of democratic institutions, ideas, characters, events, and languages have an irreducibly arbitrary and, therefore, contingent and tentative quality about them. Previous histories of democracy have been intoxicated by their naïve belief in timeless “facts”: “It is Facts that are needed: Facts, Facts, Facts,” James Bryce insisted in his Modern Democracies (1921). Despite all that has happened in such fields as philosophy, science, and linguistics since Bryce wrote these words, plenty of historians still like to suppose that they are the last historians; they think of themselves as recording an- gels, not as hanging judges. They imagine their impartiality stems from the precept that they deal only with facts, with what really happened, but that is a fallacy. I have elsewhere explained (in an early commentary on the work of Quentin Skinner) that there is no such thing as a straightforwardly “objective” history based on the past “as it really was.” Those who pretend otherwise resemble tricksters bent on pulling the wool over the eyes of the living, at the expense of the dead and the unborn.

Two of my teachers persuaded me that history is always a contrived representation, not a simple reproduction, of things past: C. B. Macpherson, who won the twin prizes of respect and fame for his theoretical efforts to guarantee a future for democracy by rescuing its past defenders from the condescension of posterity, and the influential twentieth-century scholarly champion of hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer (see Gadamer 2013; Macpherson 1977). Both teachers, who never saw eye to eye on anything but the importance of studying history, inspired me to think historically about the methods historians use to come to terms with the past. Throughout this book and in previous works I adopted an approach that I sometimes call a “dialogue with the dead” (Keane 1988). Critical  of all strands of analytic political writing that rely on abstract language and formal propositions, it defends a forceful history of the present that retrieves forgotten or neglected political languages, characters, events, and political institutions. The dialogue-with-the-dead approach has underpinned my earlier efforts to breathe new life into the old ideal of civil society, to show why secular forms of the originally seventeenth-century Christian principle of liberty of the press  today  remain  alive  and  well,  and to demonstrate the great contemporary relevance of the life and writings of the eighteenth-century political writer Thomas Paine (Keane 1991, 1995, 1998).

The Life and Death of Democracy similarly pursues a dialogue with the dead. In supposing the importance of the past for the present and the future, it emphasizes that each and every account of the past is inescapably shaped by the mental and linguistic horizons of the present day. Memories are not the gift of impartial spectators; every age and every historian looks upon the past from their own different perspectives and sets of concerns. If that is so, then historians of democracy must admit the strangers of contingency and humility into their ranks. For it turns out that the simon-pure-and-simple facts of political history are never simple at all and that even when apparently straightforward “facts” – names, dates, places – win universal agreement among political historians, they are always so trivial that they cry out for interpretations of their significance. The lit lamp of “Facts, Facts, Facts,” contrary to Bryce, cannot guide the study of politics, political thinking, and history. As in life more generally, facts invariably depend upon interpretations, interpretations depend upon narrations, narrations depend upon concepts and rules of method, and concepts and rules of method are shaped by interpretations and narrations and by the languages, events, characters, and institutions that provide the raw material (“the facts”) of interpretations, narrations, and ways of thinking about power and politics, understood in the broadest sense.

There is a fourth rule: the methods that are most suited to writing about the past, present, and future of democracy must draw attention to the peculiarity of their own (and others’) rules of interpretation. Democracy has no need of orthodoxy or memory police. For if democracy is an unending exercise in humbling the arrogant, writing about its history should be no different. Ideally, discussions of the past, present, and future of democracy must aim for openness, for example, by admitting their ignorance, the deliberately conjectural qualities of their claims, and the great complexity of the causes and causers of the things they narrate – hence, recognition that the past cannot be fully mastered (as Charles Maier 1997 illustrates in his account of the role played by historians in the young democracy of the Federal Republic of Germany).

The Life and Death of Democracy tries hard to harness this methodological rule. For the purpose of encouraging readers to think for themselves,    to make up their own minds about the subject, it switches periodically from one narrative voice to another  and  reverses  the  temporal  sequence of events so that the false sense of security provided by one-thing-followed-by-another description is broken. The book questions some standard units of historical thinking. It shows, for instance, that in understanding the origins of parliaments and the politics of representation, democracy cannot be understood through simple categories such as “ancient,” “medieval,” and “modern.” It calls into question Samuel P. Huntington’s (1993) influential but empirically  misleading  claim  that  events in southern Europe triggered a “third wave” of democracy by noting the much more consequential birth of “monitory democracy” in the years immediately after 1945. The book emphasizes throughout that  democracy has different, discordant, and braided tempos so that efforts there- fore must be made to track the long-term continuities, gradual changes, messy moments, and sudden upheavals that have defined its history. Toward the end of the story, tongue-in-cheek, the book even introduces a fictional narrator in the time-honored tradition of classical assembly democracy: a muse, to remind us that imagining the future is vital for remembering what is going on in the present. Throughout, the book places great emphasis upon the multiple causes and causers of democracy, the secrets she keeps, her astonishing variation in time and space. The book sometimes casts doubt on its own certainties; it retells the best jokes at the expense of democracy and gives voice to the claims of its opponents. It tries to sharpen readers’ sense of irony by paying attention to the unintended consequences that so often gave rise to democratic institutions, and it deliberately adopts the widest possible plurality of perspectives on the subject.

Stretching and sharpening the mental geography of our understanding of democracy is one of the prime aims of The Life and Death of Democracy. It was spurred on by deep dissatisfaction with the parochialism of much contemporary writing about democracy. It took aim, for instance, at the effort of the English scholar John Dunn (2005) to write a history of the word democracy while ignoring its pre-Greek origins, its survival in the early Muslim world, its earliest modern redefinition in the Low Countries, its penetration of the countries of Spanish America during the nineteenth century, and its more recent metamorphosis in contexts as different as southern Africa, Taiwan, Indonesia, and India. The Life and Death of Democracy also targeted the influential textbook treatment by David Held (2006) of various “models” of democracy, a thoroughly conventional narrative whose core normative “principle of autonomy” has an originally nineteenth-century liberal individualist bias and whose whole distinctively Anglo-centric approach precludes references to many anomalous cases and worrying trends, past and present. In the literature on democracy these works are not exceptions. Despite many rich insights, so many standard works make it seem as if the languages, institutions, and ideals of democracy are still essentially phenomena of the Atlantic region. These works usually repeat the cliché that democracy originated in Athens, ignore the growing body of research on the assemblies of ancient Syria-Mesopotamia, and, as if to please the prejudices of James Bryce, Nahum Capen, and Alexis de Tocqueville, remain silent about the contributions of the early Islamic world. The remarkable spread of the ideals and institutions of representative democracy in Spanish America and the British Empire is normally ignored, as is the contemporary indigenization of democracy in places otherwise as different as India, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Taiwan, and China. In times when the world has changed democracy as much as democracy has changed the world, none of this neglect is any longer acceptable. That is why The Life and Death of Democracy calls for greater space-time worldliness in the way we think about democracy. Borrowing from twentieth-century physics to depict time as a dimension of space, it makes a case for a world history of democracy, one that is no longer conceived within the confines of national and linguistic boundaries or within originally trans-Atlantic ways of political life and political thinking that falsely claim to be universal.

Rule number five is equally important: acknowledge that, until quite recently, most details of the history of democracy have been recorded by its critics or by its outright opponents. Right from the beginning, as Nicole Loraux (2006: ch. 4) and other scholars have pointed out, cold silence and hot-blooded animosity greeted the inventors of democracy. Rather typical was the kind of abuse that lashed out from the surviving pages  of its founding historian: an aristocrat named Thucydides (c. 460–400 BCE). His History of the Peloponnesian War emphasized time and again just how easily democracy, “effeminate government,” could be muscled aside by the immutable realities of power, politics, and war. A loser who was himself exiled from Athens because the naval fleet he commanded (in 424 BCE) failed to accomplish its mission, Thucydides had a chip on his shoulder against democracy. He detested its pandering demagogues and accused it of imprudence and political incompetence. In a world structured by cyclical time and ruled by the law that the strong always do what they can and the weak suffer what they must, democracy for him was vulnerable, irresponsible, short-sighted, selfish, and fickle – negative qualities that were symbolized, in his view, by the Athenian mob that one day, under the influence of demagogues, voted to kill all of the adult male population and to sell into slavery the women and children who had resisted the imperial rule of Athens, only on the next day to change its mind, thanks to the prompting of more moderate leaders.

Until well into the twentieth century, following the path first cut     by Thucydides, most subsequent treatments of the life and times of democracy displayed deep ambivalence toward their subject. James Bryce’s Modern Democracies worried that parliamentary democracies, for all their moral appeal, might well produce majorities that behaved like oligarchies, selfishly and self-destructively. A century before, François Guizot’s History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe (1820–1822) attacked the democratic “principle of the sovereignty of the people” as an affront to “the experience of the world, which has always seen the timid following the brave, the incompetent obeying the competent – in one word, those who are naturally inferior recognizing and submitting themselves to their natural superiors” (1861: 70–71). That liberal-minded judgement resurfaced in stronger form in the classic nineteenth-century account of the rise of popular government by the English comparative jurist Sir Henry Sumner Maine (1822–1888). He concluded that if democracy had triumphed in England, then “there would have been no reformation of religion, no change of dynasty, no toleration of Dissent, not even an ac- curate Calendar,” adding, “The threshing-machine, the power-loom, the spinning-jenny, and possibly the steam-engine, would have been prohibited” (1886: 98).

There is a penultimate methodological rule: the negative tone of most previous histories of democracy confirms the rule that tales of its past told by historians, politicians, and others often harbor the prejudices of the powerful. It sounds odd to put things this way, but one of  the lessons history teaches us is that those who talk about history often teach us the wrong lessons. Given the record of deep-seated opposition to democracy among its historians, any history of democracy worthy of the name therefore has to start again. It needs to relinquish the bad habit of thinking that Pericles and other early critics and foes of democracy were its first allies. It needs as well to bear in mind that democracy has plenty of mimickers and false or fair-weather friends, that recorded history is always a record produced by someone in some particular time and place and for some particular purpose, and that when, for instance, a president or prime minister waxes eloquent about the historic triumph of democracy or the historic need for its promotion for the sake of peace, by force of arms, memory and power may well conspire to ruin democracy’s for- tunes. That is why The Life and Death of Democracy poses a tough question: Is it possible to write about the past, present, and future of democracy more democratically, using methods that include many more experiences and voices from around the world? It answers the question by issuing a warn- ing to those who are interested in the past and present and future of democracy: history often resembles a big bag of tricks played by the living on the dead. If that is so, then those thinkers who care for democracy and, therefore, have an interest in its history, must be prepared to have their own prejudices challenged. They must dare to question humbug, to open themselves up to bold and unfamiliar conjectures, to recognize the need to bring democracy to the history of democracy: initially by granting a vote to events, institutions, and people whose enduring contributions to democracy have been shoved aside and compulsorily forgotten, according to the rules of victors’ justice, then buried by their enemies in the deep holes of the past.

The Life and Death of Democracy is guided by a seventh and final rule: theories of democracy cannot escape the vicissitudes of time. Admit that the task of thinking about the past, present, and future of democracy      is by definition an unending journey. There can be no Grand Theory of Democracy. Thinking about democracy is inevitably marked by a marvelously unfinished fluidity. It is an odyssey, an unending adventure bound by unexpected twists and turns. It is inescapably subject to the need for revisions brought about by new evidence, unexpected events, different interpretations, and different ways of doing history, put forward especially in troubled times such as ours by people with heterodox thoughts about whether democracy might be coming to a sticky end or why, in spite of everything and carefully understood, democracy remains the most potent weapon invented by humans for preventing their abuse of power.


John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin. E-mail:



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Dunn, John. 2005. Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic Books.

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Gadamer, Hans Georg. 2013. Truth and Method. New York: Bloomsbury.

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