Decline and Rise of Democracy

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* Book: The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today. By David Stasavage. Princeton University Press,



"Historical accounts of democracy’s rise tend to focus on ancient Greece and pre-Renaissance Europe. The Decline and Rise of Democracy draws from global evidence to show that the story is much richer—democratic practices were present in many places, at many other times, from the Americas before European conquest, to ancient Mesopotamia, to precolonial Africa. Delving into the prevalence of early democracy throughout the world, David Stasavage makes the case that understanding how and where these democracies flourished—and when and why they declined—can provide crucial information not just about the history of governance, but also about the ways modern democracies work and where they could manifest in the future.

Drawing from examples spanning several millennia, Stasavage first considers why states developed either democratic or autocratic styles of governance and argues that early democracy tended to develop in small places with a weak state and, counterintuitively, simple technologies. When central state institutions (such as a tax bureaucracy) were absent—as in medieval Europe—rulers needed consent from their populace to govern. When central institutions were strong—as in China or the Middle East—consent was less necessary and autocracy more likely. He then explores the transition from early to modern democracy, which first took shape in England and then the United States, illustrating that modern democracy arose as an effort to combine popular control with a strong state over a large territory. Democracy has been an experiment that has unfolded over time and across the world—and its transformation is ongoing.

Amidst rising democratic anxieties, The Decline and Rise of Democracy widens the historical lens on the growth of political institutions and offers surprising lessons for all who care about governance."


Jack Visnjic:

"The book consists of twelve chapters organized into three main sections.

Chapters 1–4 seek to explain the origins of democracy, to present evidence that it was widespread in premodern times, and to illustrate ways in which the progress of civilization often undermined early democracy.

In chapters 5–8, Stasavage attempts to explain the political divergence between modern Europe and the rest of the world. He does so by first tracing the emergence of representation (one of the defining features of modern democracy) in medieval Europe in chapter 5. The next two chapters explore why large-scale democracies did not emerge in China and the early Islamic world, respectively. Chapter 8 works to debunk claims that economic history alone can explain the political divergence of modern Europe.

The third and final section of the book (chapters 9–12) explores the rise and spread of modern democracy. Chapters 9 and 10 illuminate just how much the character of modern democracy is indebted to the peculiarities of English and American history. Chapter 11 discusses the astonishing spread of modern democracy over the past few centuries, including recently to regions of the world that were thought to be too poor or underdeveloped to sustain democracy. The final chapter applies the lessons learned throughout the book to offer some thoughts on what the future may have in store for not just America, but also China. In the case of America, Stasavage claims that the long history of democracy should make us hopeful about its future, provided that we make continual efforts and investments to address two challenges in particular: growing executive power and citizen distrust in government."



Jack Visnjic:

"In an age of anxiety about the future of democracy, when new publications routine-ly come out bearing such titles as How Democracies Die and How Democracies End, David Stasavage’s new book offers a deeper probe into the past and a more hopeful message about the future. In contrast to the recent flurry of books and articles on the topic, which usually limit their focus to the past century or two, The Decline and Rise of Democracy claims to bring to light a global history of democracy spanning several millennia. In that respect, it continues the trend of “grand narrative” histories popularized by such writers as Jared Diamond, Ian Morris, and Walter Scheidel. One of the book's objectives is to overturn the long-established narrative that democracy was invented at a particular time and place (viz. ancient Greece) and was later revived by modern Europeans. Stasavage argues that democracy, rather than being a hallmark of the West, was actually common across early societies all around the globe. However, as states became larger, democracy proved harder to scale than what he calls the “autocratic alternative.” Many early democracies thus came to be overrun by larger-scale autocracies. Even when democratic societies prevailed against larger kingdoms and conquered them, they often became auto-cratic in the process because they inherited a centralized state with bureaucratic structures. In addition to the problem of scale, early democracy was also under-mined by new technologies that allowed rulers to monitor their subjects’ activities and production more closely. This is the initial “decline of democracy” referred to in the book’s title. The subsequent “rise of democracy” refers to the appearance of a new form of representative government in the 18th century, initially along the north Atlantic seaboard, from which it has now spread to much of the world. This new system, dubbed by Stasavage “modern democracy,” is characterized by broad suffrage and a legislature in which—this is key—representatives are not bound by mandates from their constituents.


To read the book is to be taken on a roller-coaster ride across four millennia of history, from ancient Mesopotamia and India, to pre-colonial America and Africa, to medieval Arabia and Europe, and beyond.

Ultimately, Stasavage isolates three factors as being key to the rise of early democracy.

Democratic rule was most likely to arise in

(1) small scale settings where

(2) rulers lacked accurate knowledge about what their subjects were producing. This information deficit gave rulers an incentive to share power in order to optimize their taxation system. Furthermore, democracy was more likely to arise when

(3) rulers needed their subjects more than their subjects needed them.

This last factor was especially pertinent in cases where rulers needed people to fight wars and where the people had exit options (they could pack up and move to a new territory). In such cases, rulers often made concessions to the ruled in exchange for their services and loyalty.


The book can also be contextualized within the longstanding debate about whether democracy is a uniquely Greco-Roman legacy or not.

On the one hand, Stasavage’s deemphasizing of Athens’ role in the birth of democracy is in line with the recent work of classical scholars such as Robinson (1997) and Ober (2015), who have shown that Athens’ democratization was part of a larger trend happening across the ancient Mediterranean. Moreover, his exploration of “early democracy” in other societies around the world is both illuminating and constitutes the most comprehensive such survey to date. On the other hand, his underlying claim that these early societies may legitimately be called “democracies” has been made before, and was controverted as recently as 2016 by Paul Cartledge in his book Democracy: A Life. Given the similarity of Cartledge’s book to Stasavage’s in terms of its chronological breadth and overall purpose, it is somewhat striking that Stasavage nowhere responds to Cartledge’s argument. What Stasavage’s book makes indisputable is that non-autocratic regimes with cooperative structures have existed the world over and for millennia. Moreover, the book offers perhaps the most thorough analysis to date of the factors that promoted and sustained non-autocratic governance in premodern times.


In conclusion, The Decline and Rise of Democracy is an important book for our age of political uncertainty. In a world where there is no shortage of “democracy experts,” each offering ghastly predictions about the future, this book offers much-needed historical depth and nuanced analysis. The discussions of democratic regimes across history are complimented by parallel discussions of autocratic states which helpfully illustrate the factors, choices, and sequences of events that led different states down the path of either democracy or autocracy. The scope of the book is so broad that all readers (even historians) stand to learn much from it. While some of the arguments are likely to prove controversial, the evidence for them is always transparently laid out in such a way that readers may use it to reach their own conclusions. Instead of ending with a vivid prediction, Stasavage prefers to conclude by offering historically based reasons for optimism, reasons for pessimism, and steps that we can take to help ensure the longevity of democracy."