The Literary City
The Literary City
Apr 25, 2023
John Keane And The Shortest History Of Democracy
Play • 41 min

There are many who believe that the cradle of democracy was Greece. But if anything, Greece may lay claim to the etymology of the word democracy, but not to democracy itself. Whence then?

The short answer by many historians is that the first evidence of democracy was in the Syrian-Mesopotamian region (Mesopotamia would be a large region around Iran as we know it today). That was around 2500 BC and this democracy was characterised by assemblies of people. And then—about 1000 years later—around 1500 BC the Indian sub-continent saw people assembling for public governance.

And in the thousands of years since, we have seen the growth of democracy—marked by greater inclusiveness of its stakeholders. To see all of it laid out in a convenient timeline is both fascinating and illuminating because it provides a ready reference and immediate context.

My guest today is John Keane historian and Professor of Politics, at the University of Sydney. John Keane is credited with introducing and popularising the term "Monitory Democracy" in his book "The Life and Death of Democracy," published in 2009. His formulation of "Monitory Democracy" has gained widespread recognition and influence in the field of political theory, as a distinct and important form of democratic governance.

John’s latest book, The Shortest History Of Democracy, is a concise journey through the history of democracy, from ancient Greece to the present day. It sets out the origins you really need to know about democracy. To be able to pull this off in less than only 250 pages, would take a lifetime of learning.

John Keane’s contributions to the field of political science have been both profound and influential. His research has focused on a wide range of topics, from democratisation and globalisation to political violence and the role of media in politics.

But it all begs the question that very few can answer and I am not one of them: what is democracy? I grew up completely convinced that my government if you like is the moral equivalent of an apartment building manager, to whom I would offer this job description: “Keep things clean, safe and in working condition and you don’t get to decide I can and cannot watch on cable TV.”

But in reality, well, the study of democracy and its history is the reality in which we live, an always fluid—even roller-coaster—state of affairs it seems. But the importance of a historian in this mix goes back to that time-worn adage about repeating history.

I can't help but wonder: what went right, what went wrong, and where is democracy headed and this is a question that really visits all of us… even our listeners who don’t live in a democracy.

This is a timeless conversation that I can't wait to have with John. Happily, I don’t have to wait, because here is he joining me from Sydney, Australia.

He is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). Renowned globally for his creative thinking about politics, history, media and democracy, The Times of London described him as among the country’s leading political thinkers The Australian Broadcasting Corporation speaks of him as one of Australia’s great intellectual exports.

Buy The Shortest History Of Democracy:

Co-host Pranati "Pea" Madhav joins Ramjee Chandran in "What's That Word?!",  where they discuss the origin of the phrase, "TO HELL IN A HAND BASKET".

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