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.
Awards and Recognition
- One of BBC History Magazine's Best Books of 2020
"A bracing stringency is one of the virtues of The Decline and Rise of Democracy. It sweeps across the globe in command of recent scholarship. . . . It shows how complex democracy’s patterns are and, on the evidence, how simpler accounts of its past and prospects stumble."—The Economist
"An outstanding volume that analyses the development of democracy and autocracy in a refreshing and relevant way."—Simon Sebag Montefiore, BBC History Magazine
"Democracy is a naturally occurring condition in humanity societies. This single idea sets Stasavage apart from so many theorists who look to the past."—Justin Kempf, Democracy Paradox
"I opened The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, by David Stasavage (Princeton, 2020), hoping to find insights on the prospects for democracy in Russia, and China. And so I did. I closed the book with a better understanding of American democracy as well."—David Warsh, Economic Principals
"A rich and coherent account of democracy’s evolution over millennia and across diverse geographical and environmental settings, "a deep history". . . . This volume helps us look into the future, and one might be unsettled by what can be seen."—Varghese K. George, The Hindu
"This book’s optimism and wide-eyed wonder sprouts like T.S. Eliot’s lilac through the dead earth of current Western declinism."—David Muir, The American Interest
"A fascinating voyage through time and place."—Pierre Lemieux, Regulation
"David Stasavage offers a rich, international overview on the origins of democracy and the conditions under which democracy flourishes (or doesn’t). . . . an outstanding piece of scholarly writing not just because of the theory it develops, but how it does so: In clear, concise, and forceful prose — the rarest of combinations, which makes this book all the more enjoyable."—Felix Simon, Medium
"[Stasavage's] approach is refreshing and inspiring."—Wim Blockmans, Parliaments, Estates, and Representation
"Stasavage has written an excellent analysis of the concept of democracy that gives hope and a better understanding of how this concept can be salvaged from the threats that are rising and the challenges that lie ahead."—John M. Bublic, The European Legacy
"The Decline and Rise of Democracy challenges longstanding beliefs about where democracy comes from: its origins lie not in wealth, culture, or class structure, but rather in the distribution of power between rulers and ruled. This is one of the most important books on political regimes written in a generation and will change how we think about the origins and future of democracy."—Steven Levitsky, coauthor of How Democracies Die
"Democracy is under siege around the world. We cannot understand these current troubles without studying democracy's long history, illustrious successes, and persistent fragility. For that, we can do no better than turn to this engaging, erudite, and cautiously optimistic book. A must-read."—Daron Acemoglu, coauthor of Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor
"Stasavage gives us a remarkably wide-ranging and bracingly unconventional survey of human experience with collective rule. This is a dazzling piece of scholarship—erudite, theoretically ambitious, and rich with implications for our understanding of democracy and its prospects in our own time and place."—Larry M. Bartels, Vanderbilt University
"David Stasavage brings an accessible but tough-minded and historically rich analytic approach to understanding the evolution of democracy, its preconditions, and its internal tensions. He masterfully crosses centuries and continents to identify the institutional and societal dynamics that enable democracies to flourish or falter. His mining of the past enhances our comprehension of the present."—Margaret Levi, Stanford University
"Rule by consent was not invented in Europe. But Europeans scaled it up to nation-states and developed its most elaborate rationales. In this stunning book, written at a time of growing anxiety over democratic backsliding, David Stasavage reviews the long history of representative governance and provides insights into its ebbs and flows. The Decline and Rise of Democracy will captivate a wide range of readers, including those interested in the deep roots of current political trends."—Timur Kuran, Duke University
"The Decline and Rise of Democracy shows that early democracy is much more prevalent than often thought and that the sequence of how a democracy forms matters. Making original arguments, and drawing on a wide range of historical data, this book presents a bold theory and a wealth of new information. An important and welcome entrant in democracy studies."—Josiah Ober, Stanford University
"This significant book explains the origins and progression of democracy: why it thrived when it did, why it failed to appear in other circumstances, and where it is more likely to develop in the future. Building on a persuasive new argument about the causes behind democracy’s emergence, and bringing together data and fascinating examples, The Decline and Rise of Democracy makes a novel contribution to a range of social science fields."—Philip T. Hoffman, California Institute of Technology
“This blew my mind.”—Sean Carroll, Mindscape