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Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
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|Length: 145 pages||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled||Page Flip: Enabled|
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Despite its widespread use, democracy is what might be called "an essentially contested concept" (p.1). Crick makes the point that numerous dictatorial regimes, such as Franco's Spain and Nasser Egypt have claimed to be democracies in some sense. Democracy can be conceptualised as a principle of government, set of institutional arrangements or a type of behaviour (p.5); the three need not go together, and thus even advocates of democracy may have very different conceptions of that ideal. Many band around the term 'democracy' when they really mean good government, constitutionalism, respect for rights or liberty, but Crick is quick to point out the contingencies of these relationships and different understandings of democracy that may operate.
Engaging in an ambitious historical overview, Crick traces the Greek origins of democracy through the Roman civic republicanism, English Civil War, American independence and the French revolution, noting at each stage how the idea develops. In the course of his exegesis, he brings in the ideas of key thinkers, such as Rousseau, Hobbes and a chapter devoted to 'Comme disait M. de Tocqueville'. Discussion isn't wholly confined to the past, however. Unlike some other Very Short Introductions (recycled from earlier material), this is original to 2002. Crick's commentary is bang up to date, mentioning September 11th, New Labour spin-doctoring and, most entertainingly of all, devoting several pages to Big Brother under the heading of popularism.
It's a hugely ambitious project for such a small book, perhaps even over-optimistic. Far more could have been devoted to important issues and thinkers, particularly Aristotle, de Tocqueville and the French Revolution, all of course worthy of books in their own right. As Crick himself notes in his introduction "to write briefly and to try to simplify without distortion an overwhelmingly important but also highly complex matter is more difficult than to write at length" (p.3-5). For the most part, he succeeds admirably, and this book will no doubt serve many well as part of an introduction to politics.
Where he does stray, however, is in a propensity to, if not digress, bring in extraneous information but make little of the point. Too often an analogy or obscure reference is cited only to be almost instantly dropped. It is as if the author were trying to show off his breadth of knowledge, or perhaps more like listening to the rambling anecdotes of an aged lecturer - whose meanderings, while interesting and informative, sometimes obscure the point he is trying to make. The argument, it seems, follows Aristotle; holding democracy necessary but not sufficient for good government.
Overall, this is a useful and interesting book. Helpful for A-level political courses, and introductory university courses too. It's not the last word though - modern debates on such topics as deliberative democracy or e-democracy don't feature at all. Despite some minor pickings though, it's generally good in so far as it goes - a useful overview of the history of democracy - leaving the reader to turn to the future.
The author doesn't hide his prejudices in writing the book, rather he makes them very clear, and I think that's the sensible choice in writing such a book. Throughout much of the book Crick takes the tone of a cynical but urbane, rather old-world gentleman. However, he ends the book with a sincere plea for the next generation to engage with the important issues of governance, and you can tell that he believed in the importance of what he says.
This is not a text book and shouldn't be used as one but for anyone who wants to know where the idea of Democracry essentially comes from, how it can mean different things to different people, and why it's important, I would highly recommend this book.
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