Larry Diamond – The Spirit of Democracy

Larry Diamond is the intellectual conscience of democracy scholarship. Perhaps this assessment is unfair. He is among the great intellectual minds among scholars of democracy living today. Yet his legacy is not necessarily theoretical but rather moral. He has challenged leaders around the world to live up to the standards of liberal democracy. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he chastises American foreign policy for neglecting its role in supporting nascent democracies. While he makes some pragmatic arguments, his case is largely moral. Ultimately, he is a true believer in democracy as a political system.

This is not Larry Diamond’s most important book. But it encapsulates many of his ideas which may in the end best reflect his legacy. Diamond does not intend The Spirit of Democracy to change democratic theory. From the beginning he devotes the book to activists who devoted their life to democratic change. His opening quotes are from Gandhi rather than political scientists like Dahl or Lipset. I do not mean to diminish the intellectual achievements of Mahatma Gandhi, but his legacy was based on actions rather than ideas. Diamond himself is a scholar by trade but is an activist at heart.

The first part of the work is designed to lay out a theoretical model for democratic success. But it reads less like a work of theory than an explanation of its history. Diamond gives an account of the third wave of democratization which is quite personal. He explains its origins in Portugal with a clear understanding of its causes. But Diamond is never an impartial observer. He is actively rooting for the champions of democracy to succeed. In ways this takes away from his scholarship. He is never a neutral scientist. But his writing draws the reader into these moments. No event is simply a datapoint. Diamond is emotionally invested in each achievement and is heartbroken from every setback.

The serious scholar should never brush aside Diamond for his lack of impartiality. There is a wealth of information on the democratic transformations of the past fifty years. He delves into every region of the world with an account of the progress, setbacks and limitations. He gives an account only he can provide because he understands the minutiae but becomes invested into every detail. Moreover, he is an optimist at heart. He is credited with coining the term “Democratic Recession” for the current wave of democratization. Yet he stands in stark contrast to the theorist of the third wave, Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington was a pessimist who accepted positive news with a healthy dose of skepticism. Diamond believes positive change is inevitable, but it depends on people to drive the change. Nothing will happen on its own.

Its important to recognize this book was written in 2008. Sometimes it can feel dated because so much has happened in the last decade. But it is also written in the shadow of the Iraq War. Liberals find it easy to condemn the war especially in hindsight. Yet it was a symptom of the third wave of democratization. Bush believed it was possible to remove a dictator so the people could govern. As a firm believer in democracy promotion, Diamond has wrestled with this event. There is an important line between the imposition of democracy and its promotion. This work tries to define the distinction both explicitly and implicitly.

Larry Diamond has been an inspiration for those who believe in democracy and its values. He is the founder and editor, alongside Marc Plattner, of the Journal of Democracy. It is a relatively easy read for an academic journal which I highly recommend for amateurs like myself who want to know more but are challenged by the dense statistical analysis in other academic journals. Larry Diamond has delivered an intimate examination of democracy around the world. But those who are new to the discipline will find he gives a great primer on the state of democratization.

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