In This Review

By Charles Tilly
Cambridge University Press, 2007, 246 pp

Democracy is more celebrated than understood. This inquiry by the great historical sociologist offers an important reinterpretation of the global advancement and retreat of democracy. Drawing on several decades of work on collective action in modern societies, Tilly fashions an innovative framework to track the processes of democratization and de-democratization across the centuries. He wants to explain not the yes-no switches between democratic and nondemocratic regimes but degrees of change over time, focusing on political processes that alter relations between citizens and the state. His claim is that the prospects for democracy hinge on three large-scale processes within a country: the integration of "interpersonal trust networks" into politics, the insulation of politics from economic and social inequalities, and the elimination or neutralization of the coercive power of autonomous power centers, such as clans, warlords, or military elites. As is his style, Tilly moves effortlessly from abstract theory to macrohistory to rich empirical discussions of country cases as varied as France, India, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela -- illuminating democracy's variations, pathways, and reversals. This book is essential reading for those eager to see democracy spread further around the world. But its message is sobering: outsiders can make a difference, but their efforts must be aimed at strengthening the deep building blocks of open, trusting, accountable, and noncoercive societies.