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Democracy: A Reader

Democracy: A Reader edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 440 pp.

Part of the “Journal of Democracy Book Series,” this collection of 27 essays is edited by Larry Diamond (senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University) and Marc Plattner (vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy); they also serve as co-editors of the Journal of Democracy published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. The essays included in this thematic anthology have been previously published in the journal (and sometimes elsewhere in anthologies or books) over the last two decades. The potential buyer should note that all covers and titles in this series (almost 20) are very similar at first glance; only the color changes from one to another.

Obviously, this edited book is not meant to gather “the most famous texts on democracy” from Ancient Greece to our days; quite the contrary, most contributors are unknown outside the USA (with perhaps the exception of Francis Fukuyama and the Dalai Lama). However, the selected topics are coherent, contemporary, and diverse, with essays on constitution-crafting (in a chapter oddly titled “Constitutional Medicine,” which borrows much from surgeons’ jargon), governance in African countries, elections, legislatures, democracy, and religion. Perhaps the strength of this anthology lies in the pedagogical qualities of many contributions, like the opening chapter, “What Democracy Is . . . And Is Not.” Here, authors Philippe Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl aptly discuss some of the concepts or components related to democracy, such as consensus, participation, access, responsiveness, majority rule, parliamentary sovereignty, party government, pluralism, federalism, and presidentialism (p. 12). But they also explain what democracy is not; they argue that “democracies are not necessarily more efficient economically than other forms of government” (p. 13). The same observations go for other aspects; the authors mention that “democracies are not likely to appear more orderly, consensual, stable, or governable than the autocraties they replace” (ibid.).

Authors usefully define and articulate their concepts. For example, in his excellent chapter on liberty, Prof. Russel Bova relies mainly on Joseph Schumpeter’s writings to argue that “democracy is a method or process of selecting rulers and, at least indirectly, policies”; he adds that two criteria play an essential role: participation (of adult members) and the possibility of a contestation (p. 322). The idea of hybrid regimes reappears in various chapters; they are seen as “combining democratic and authoritarian elements” and exist since the 1960s, with “multi-party, electoral, but undemocratic regimes.” Noted examples specified by Diamond are “Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, Senegal, South Africa, Rhodesia, and Taiwan” (p. 231). Hence, a detailed classification of types of regimes (i.e., Western democracies, post-communist, etc.) in all continents appears on pp. 238–89.

In chapter 17, Steven Levitshy and Lucan Way understand “competitive authoritarianism” as a hybrid regime that is “officially” democratic even though it in fact violates the democratic rules, giving as examples “Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, and post-1995 Haiti, as well as Albania, Armenia, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia through much of the 1990s” (p. 245). The authors also quote Juan Linz to say that instead of being “partial or diminished forms of democracy,” these regimes are actually to be seen as “a (diminished) form of authoritarianism” (p. 245).

While the first two parts introduce useful definitions of what democracy is and how it is sustained, the central section examines which institutions seem to work best. The first half of the book concentrates on the Western model of democracy, while the last portions view other continents. Part 4 raises some interesting questions regarding elections, such as Are elections insurance and a guarantee for democracy? In chapter 18, Andreas Schedler discusses the various dimensions of choice with concepts like “freedom of demand: Citizens must be able to learn about available alternatives through access to alternative sources of information” (p. 261). The fifth and final part (“Is Democracy a Universal Value?”) of this collection is timely and thought-provoking since its seven chapters focus on culture, religions, values, human rights, and Muslim governments and the notion of a “Muslim democracy” in Malaysia in a chapter written by a former politician from that country.

However, I have three quibbles about this book. First, the presentation and contextualization of every selected text made by the co-editors is much too short (only one paragraph in the general introduction piece and another at the beginning of each chapter) and does not highlight the main strengths of each piece. Abstracts have been removed from the original articles. Secondly, the chapters were not updated by their original authors, therefore, some older passages (for example about the communist Albania) written about 20 years ago need to be nuanced if one wants to get the actual picture (p. 14). Some new notes or reflective comments by the original authors would have been useful; otherwise, why reprint the same unchanged articles in a field that is always evolving? Thirdly, I think this book’s title is much too brief (only three words) and too vague for experts in this field; the co-editors are surely aware that there are many other books with this same title. As any PhD student should know, an appropriate title must give a direction and suggest an approach, an era, or some specific themes. Nevertheless, these quibbles apart, Democracy: A Reader is undoubtedly instructive and clear; it would fit for advanced undergraduates in political science, international relations, geopolitics, political philosophy, and comparative history.

Yves Laberge, PhD

Québec City

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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