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Democracy is changing before our eyes, according to new book

A new book, written by Dr Simon Reid-Henry, a Political and Historical Geographer at Queen Mary University of London, sheds new light on the state of western democracies since the Cold War.

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Photograph of the Berlin Wall before it came down
Photograph of the Berlin Wall before it came down

Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971-2017 is a definitive narrative history of events in the West during the past four decades. Published in the UK on 27 June, it covers a range of topics including the social, economic and geopolitical changes that set in following the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Thatcher years, the fall of communism, and the global financial crisis of the last decade.

Democracy is not static 

The work highlights that democracy is not static but constantly reimagined. Whilst the western democracies were rebuilt and consolidated after the Second World War, leading to thirty years of economic growth and stability, they were reimagined anew in the 1970s, as the Cold War drew to a close. It is the limits of those 70s-era ideas and institutions, Dr Simon Reid-Henry argues, that we have reached in the upheaval western democracies are facing today.

“We have until now lacked a single-volume history of the western democracies since the late 20th century yet, think how much has happened. Liberal democracy expanded to nations of the former communist East and to Southern Europe; but for much of this era it has also hollowed out. To make the right choices going forward, requires us first to come to terms with where we have been,” said Dr Simon Reid-Henry.

Populism is nothing new

The work also sheds new light on understandings of populism, including the rise of the far right across Europe, the election of Donald Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK. Simon Reid-Henry explained: “Growing disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of the pile has been there all along. We are living with the consequences of this.

“Terms like populism and technocracy are a new language for discussing old problems that we have carried into the twenty-first century from the last one: they obscure as much as they reveal.

“Most of the problems we see today have emerged as democratic institutions designed for efficiency not equality and show the strain of trying to manage chronically uneven societies. Trump happened for a reason, the warning signs were there but were never taken seriously. Similarly, Brexit is an outcome not just of Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ but of austerity and public sector retrenchment in Britain.”

Democratic 'renewal' is needed

The work also proposes possible solutions for democratic renewal following a period of crisis. “The current moment is actually, politically incredibly open, just like the last turning point in democracy’s history in the 1970s. Today we urgently need to remake our democratic institutions so that public trust can be rebuilt,” said Dr Simon Reid-Henry. 

“We need to be both informed and critical of the past and be aware that our own, usually nationally-framed experience is just one part of a much bigger picture. I hope my book offers a basic education on these fronts: a history of western democracy for the global age.”

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