How do you write the history of the post-Cold War age?
It’s two weeks to launch day and Empire of Democracy is now available for pre-order.
It’s been a long road to get here.
In 2011 I set out to write a book that I was desperate to read but that didn’t exist: a one stop history of the West in the present age. That book now exists and is about to release on June 25th (US) and June 27th (UK).
So how do you write a history of the post-Cold War age? As I set about the research, I soon realised that democracy would have to be the book’s central motif. Few people seemed convinced back then that subjecting ‘western’ liberal democracy to finely-grained scrutiny was worth the bother; today it sometimes seems this is all we ever talk about. But at stake is a lot more than just “Brexit and Trump”. The story is less Anglo-centric, for one – and it reaches back to the 1970s as much as 1989.
What I ended up writing now weighs in at 880 pages of (I hope!) compelling narrative history: with a twist. Empire of Democracy foregrounds the major developments of our time, from Vietnam and ’68, through Eurocommunism, the Mitterrand U-turn in France, Reagan and Thatcher, the “Third Way”, 9/11, the financial crisis, and the rise of populism today. I argue that we need to break away from the idea that the fall of communism in the East is the right starting point for thinking about the history of the present in the West. But equally the book examines the forces shaping these and many other developments and the struggle over ideas through which all political history plays out. It is written to be accessible and compelling for non-specialist readers while revisiting and responding to many core scholarly debates – indeed, part of the point is to bring those debates together in one place.
Empire of Democracy is a work of geographical synthesis too. It covers the liberal democracies of Europe, North America and the antipodes, and nearly half a century of history. It guides the reader through political breakthroughs, economic crises, cultural transformations, and longer-term trends alike. It also examines the interleaving of national-level developments with the full-fledged transformation of the international sphere that has taken place across these decades. It retraces the myriad small steps by which we carried ourselves to where we are today: to the current state of play regarding immigration, public space, job (in)security, nationalism, class, and yes – ultimately – also democracy.
It does all this for one good reason, which is to answer that most basic question of how things ultimately hang together (and why it is that, sometimes, they suddenly no longer seem to). Trump was no revolution: he was a political earthquake waiting to happen. To understand the post-2016 climate we need to know exactly how we tracked from the enforced stability of the late Cold War era to the post-financial crisis present; of what the great economic and technological changes of our time have done to social and political life; and of our shifting public engagements and institutional commitments during these decades.
Democracy is up for grabs today more than at any time since the 1970s. Every day the media reports on some form or other of political upheaval, be it parliamentary crises or protests on the street. Often it seems that a politics of fear seems to have taken hold. But the current moment is in fact radically open. As I argue in the book, we have the chance to change how we rule ourselves for the better.
I sincerely hope that my book can be a one-stop general education in how we got to this moment, and how we might yet make the most of it going forward. Democracy is changing before our eyes. Seizing that opening in the right (not wrong) ways requires us first to understand where we have been.
I’d be so grateful if you can help me spread the word about Empire of Democracy– a book into which I have poured pretty much everything I have – so that a better, more open and honest public debate becomes possible.
· You can share ideas about it with friends (the book’s short epilogue offers one discussion point, or start with this author Q & A here).
· And you can follow this blog (for more regular updates and political commentary).
Stay tuned, we have a lot of work to do!