In This Review
The Shortest History of Democracy: 4,000 Years of Self-Government— A Retelling for Our Times

The Shortest History of Democracy: 4,000 Years of Self-Government— A Retelling for Our Times

By John Keane

The Experiment, 2022, 240 pp.

In this fast-paced and engaging book, Keane tells the story of societies across the ancient and modern eras struggling for self-government. Democracy’s journey is best seen not as the steady march of the Western world to freedom and enlightenment but rather as an odyssey, full of twists and turns, crises, and reinventions. Keane locates the first glimmers of self-rule centuries before its emergence in ancient Greece in the public assemblies of the cities of Mesopotamia that functioned as a counterweight to kingly power. The later assemblies of Athens pre-figured the parliaments that would emerge in parts of medieval Europe, a new vision of democracy that would eventually be taken up in the colonies of North America, leading to the American and French Revolutions and the anti-imperial republican revolutions in South America. Keane argues that a pivotal new phase began in the 1940s with the rise of what he calls “monitory democracy,” characterized by the emergence of new forms of power-monitoring institutions and legal forms of accountability. This last era of democratic expansion, in Keane’s view, was truly global and not just Western. Democracy must be defended, he claims, as the surest enabler of open-mindedness, diversity, and an ethical way of life.