From Plato to de Tocqueville to Fukuyama—an epic history of the governing philosophy that has defined Western history.
Looking beyond the Athens-Runnymede-Philadelphia axis, political scholar Keane (Tom Paine) traces democracy's roots back to Sumeria and follows its tendrils as far afield as Pitcairn Island and Papua New Guinea. (A revelatory chapter on India's “banyan democracy” suggests that democracy's center of gravity has shifted decisively eastward.) Less interested in theory than actuality, he gives Locke, Madison and their ilk short shrift to make room for engrossing profiles of obscure politicians and reformers—medieval Spain's cortes (parliaments); José Batlle y Ordóñez, president of Uruguay in the early 20th century; the Australian progressives who pioneered proportional representation and women's suffrage—whose efforts built democracy from the ground up. Democracy thus emerges as less a set of fixed principles than a culture and mindset—pragmatic, antiauthoritarian, accepting of change and contingency and the ability of ordinary people to shape them. Keane's lack of theoretical rigor sometimes tells; his vision of a developing “monitory democracy,” characterized by a hypervigilant civil society, all-seeing media and “viral politics” seems more faddish than focused. But his study's broad sweep, wealth of detailed knowledge, shrewd insights and fluent, lively prose make it a must-read for scholars and citizens alike. Photos. (Aug.)