The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, 2020), by David Stasavage, of New York University, gives the impression of being an easy read. Three hundred pages of text present a powerful narrative delivered with disarming clarity, with no showier claim to authority than the precision of its arguments.
But then come 37 pages of notes and a bibliography of 850 items, adding another hundred pages to the book. Stasavage has mastered so much history, and located it so deftly in recent controversies of social science, that he covers nearly everything that I have so much as glimpsed going on as an economic journalist these past fifty years, and a great deal more that I hadn’t. No wonder I missed on the couple of previous swings I took at it. I’ve got a bead on it now.
We won’t know for a while, but my hunch is that Decline and Rise will turn out to be the most compelling work on grand strategy since The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, in the euphoria of the early ’90s. Since then there’s been Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017), by Graham Allison, but that was somehow less helpful than the much earlier The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline 1895-1905 (1988), by Aaron Friedberg. Meanwhile, Decline and Rise is differently grounded from the agendas of realists such as John Mearsheimer (The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, 2018) and Stephen Walt (The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, 2018). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019), by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is somewhat similar to Decline and Rise.
Stasavage begins by rehearsing the narrative familiar to anyone who has taken a course in world history: how democracy was invented in Greece, and how it died out after a very short time – “about as much time as the American republic has existed.” Resurrected in Italian city republics like Venice and Genoa, after more than a thousand years, thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotle; and in the England of Magna Carta, democracy then resumed its long slow evolution to the present day.
That takes no more than a paragraph. The “problem with this story,” Stasavage writes (a phrase that occurs many times in the book) is that it is highly misleading. When Europeans in the sixteenth century began fanning out across the world they often found themselves dealing with systems of government in which consent of the governed played a greater role than the ones that prevailed at home. These included tribes like the Huron people of southwest Ontario, whom Jesuit missionaries studied intently; and the Tlaxcala people of Mesoamerica, whose government Hernan Cortez described as resembling that of Genoa or Pisa, because there was no king.
These early democracies, as Stasavage calls them, flourished wherever states were weak, which as recently as five hundred years ago, was most of the Earth. They involved tribal chiefs who ruled collectively with the aid of assemblies and councils that constrained their power. These bodies were in turn responsive to the ordinary people whom they led, at least a subset of them, and they were to be found all over the world in communities that shared three characteristics: small scale; leaders who lacked knowledge of what their subjects were producing; and an option for the disaffected to flee into the forest or otherwise “light out for the territory.” Fans of the saga of King John and Robin Hood will recognize the situation. Leaders who lacked dependable tax systems were more likely to govern consensually.
Early democracies existed in contradistinction to autocracies, which prevailed wherever a state could get a leg up on the citizenry, chiefly by knowing whom to tax and how much, in settlements from which there was no easy exit. China, with its fertile plateau of loess soil, was the first state. From at least the beginning of the second millennium BCE, dynasties in northwest China were able to support armies and build proto-bureaucracies by levying taxes on farmers whose productivity was more or less visible. Rulers were hereditary. Councils had no say in the matter. Other autocracies emerged out of similar geography: the Third Sumerian Dynasty of Ur, the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Incas, the Mississippian chiefdoms, the Azande kingdom in central Africa. Islam inherited a state when it burst out of Arabia to conquer the Sasanian Empire in the Fertile Crescent. Islam retained the local bureaucracy and converted it to its use.
Then came “the great divergence.” Everyone seems to agree that the different economic trajectory that Europe pursued began with representative government. But if the economic divergence has political origins, where did the politics come from? Representative government in Europe stemmed from the backwardness of its state bureaucracies, Stavasage argues. Rulers had no alternative but to seek consent from Europe’s growing towns. China and the Islamic world were far better off than Europe for five centuries or more; autocracy served development well. But at a certain point the Renaissance commenced, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Modern democracies had their beginnings in England, not the Dutch Republic, as has often been argued, England borrowed many Dutch institutions, so what made England different? A new kind of parliamentary government, in which representatives could be bound by voter mandates, nor were they required to report back to their constituencies before making decisions. The Dutch retained institutions that permitted vested interests to forestall technological innovations; England sprinted ahead economically.
If the English went halfway to modern democracy, building a centralized state in which kings had powers as well as the newly-animated parliament, American colonists took the process to the next level, creating the broad suffrage for white males as a means of maintaining the consent of the governed necessary to the existence of a strong executive state. But the same conditions that produced democracy for European immigrants produced slavery for Africans and disaster for native American peoples. Stasavage is especially acute on the forces binding today’s Americans together – and those driving them apart.
The picture that emerges is of a world divided into two deep traditions, democracy and autocracy, the US, the European Union, India, Japan, on the one hand; China and Russia on the other, neither system innately superior to the other in all times and circumstances. A lengthy contest portends, not a cold war so much as an economic competition with values at its core. A great deal has happened in the last thirty or forty years that favors Stasavage’s cross-regional perspective. It may not be too much to speak of a second golden age of social science. The long nineteenth century was the first: we remember Smith, Tocqueville, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Freud, in particular. And the second? The departments of knowledge have become more complex and deepened considerably. A great many streams have begun to flow in parallel. Almost all have one thing in common: they began to flow after Darwin had a chance to sink in.
There are, of course, other pathways to thinking about America’s place in the world. One of the best is biography. As it happened, I spent part of last week reading The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (Norton, 2020) by Barry Gewen. Same questions, different methods, a high degree of skill applied in each case. Same answers. Social theory may point the way to peace, but the life of politics requires action. For a skeptical view, see Thomas Meaney .