Democracy is an ideal which is experienced on different levels, depending on where you are in the world. For some, it is a fixed concept in everyday culture. For others, it is a brand new reality which still needs to be defined and refined. For still others, it is still out of reach. Social scientist Larry Diamond examines the scope of democracy on an international level in his book, “The Spirit of Democracy”. It a manifesto which examines how successful the experiment of democracy is in the world today.
In this book, Diamond takes a broad outlook of democracy as a concept. He dissects the state of democracy, or lack of it, in much of the world today. The chapters of the book investigate different aspects of democracy and its history in the world. Then Diamond narrows his focus to specific geographical zones. For example, he discusses how democracy spread through the world in the eighties, and then looks at a zone such as Eastern Europe. He then divides the focus between former Soviet republics, comparing the state of European countries such as the Ukraine with Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan. It is an interesting and very comprehensive outline, though heavily detailed and occasionally redundant.
Diamond’s approach seems to be analogous to a sociological diagnostician. After surveying the total health of each of his patients, which in this case are countries are regions and countries, he gives a very specific prescription to what he believes are the ailments of his clients. He also notices where things are going right, and how the regions can continue to do better in these areas. No region escapes his analysis. Even the strongest and most stable democracies such as the United States and the European Union are analyzed. He also explains what these democratic giants can do, especially if they want the rest of the world to embrace democracy and not fall prey to totalitarianism. The timing of these suggestions is appropriate, especially with the so-called “Arab Spring” democracy protests occurring in the Middle East and North Africa. Diamond suggest that if the West wants democracy to take root in places such as the Arab world, they themselves should set the example by strengthening democracy in their own turf.
I found this book to be a very interesting. Diamond’s expertise is in democracy, and he does very well in depicting the full scope of democracy and what it really means. I appreciate his work in defining democracy, because too often I hear people going on about freedom without really explaining what they mean by it. It is clear from Diamond’s definition that democracy has nothing to do with a free-for-all, and he is especially good in defining that liberalism has nothing to do with turning into antiwar hippies from the sixties. He makes the distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies, and gives prescriptions for liberal democracies to not slip into this quasi false state of illiberalism. His discussion about checks and balances is a potent argument for what government should be in a liberal democracy, and why the smallest government possible may not be the best option for liberalism.
I believe “The Spirit of Democracy” is a good read for anyone who is interested in studying democracy and how it can be furthered in the world, and improved in established democracies. With the recent advent of democratic revolutions, especially in the Middle East, this might be a good book to read for the times. It is extremely detailed, and not a super easy read due to all the details. But it was quite informative, and considering the minutiae, was very comprehensive. Even though it took me longer to read than my usual pace, I did finish it. Larry Diamond has done a lot to clarify what is often a misconstrued subject. He gives a good argument of why you should care about what goes on in government, whether it is yours at home or in a country far away.