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Democracy in Brief

textbook cover image
The puzzle of democracy (https://flic.kr/p/dLdZc7) by Adam Fagen (https://www.flickr.com/photos/afagen/) used under a CC-BY-NC-SA license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Description: Democracy in Brief touches on topics such as rights and responsibilities of citizens, free and fair elections, the rule of law, the role of a written constitution, separation of powers, a free media, the role of parties and interest groups, military-civilian relations and democratic culture.

Author: United States Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs

Original source: iipdigital.usembassy.gov

Adoption (faculty): Contact us if you are using this textbook in your course

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Review this book

Reviews for 'Democracy in Brief'

Number of reviews: 2
Average Rating: 4 out of 5

1. Reviewed by: Joshua Labove
  • Institution: Simon Fraser University
  • Title/Position: Sessional Lecturer/Teaching Assistant
  • Overall Rating: 4.3 out of 5
  • Date:
  • License: Creative Commons License

Q: The text covers all areas and ideas of the subject appropriately and provides an effective index and/or glossary

It’s hard to be comprehensive and brief as this text is so titled, and certainly political theorists will feel this offering is lacking, skipping the philosophical underpinnings of democracy for the practical basics and real-world applications. I would concur, and say that while the text does a good job describing facets of democratic life in the present day, more could have been said to explain where this concept comes from. It does not come from Abraham Lincoln, but reading this text, you might think as much—the Civil War era leader is one of the few historical mentions outside of a passing reference to the Greek word from which democracy arises.

One of the ways the text aims to achieve comprehensiveness is through a large number of photos. The captions under the photos are very quick to mention the many kinds of diversity shown: national, cultural, religious, ethnic. Long story short—yes, this text may be put together by the United States State Department, but the editors would like you to walk away with the feeling that this celebration of democracy is not US-specific. In a similar fashion, one off references to scholars and institutions around the world appear as attempt to internationalize the text and depoliticize a discussion of democracy.

Comprehensiveness Rating: 2 out of 5

Q: Content is accurate, error-free and unbiased

The content is generally accurate, however at times, vague or lacking detail. Some of these details may complicate claims made in the text, and they would certainly demand a larger volume than the current 60 pages. For instance, education is called out as vital to democracy—though this seems to be only explained in contrast to authoritarian regimes that “seek to inculcate an attitude of passive acceptance”. Less is said about the challenges to education in a modern democratic society, particularly those such as the United States and Canada that are as well deeply embedded in capitalism.

There is, for all the efforts to the contrary, still a bias here—however not a terribly objectionable one—that democracy is good. Perhaps the more difficult bias is seen in the way other systems of governance are discussed. The few references to authoritarian regimes in the text—and there are only a few—describe these governments with a kind of malicious agency that lacks nuance or any real-world complexity.

Content Accuracy Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: Content is up-to-date, but not in a way that will quickly make the text obsolete within a short period of time. The text is written and/or arranged in such a way that necessary updates will be relatively easy and straightforward to implement

The text is up-to-date, and should be for quite some time. It avoids current events that may complicate the discussion of democracy for a simpler, foundational approach. At the very least, this helps ensure the text is useful for a long time to come.

Relevance Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: The text is written in lucid, accessible prose, and provides adequate context for any jargon/technical terminology used

The text is clearly written and is free of jargon or technical language. Arguably, the writing veers a bit toward the overly simplistic, but I’d rather this than a text that needlessly makes concepts difficult for students through writing and presentation. I might have liked to see more case studies—the photos hint at examples that are not actually discussed—or examples of democracy in action, beyond the descriptions of the democratic process. Beyond a picture of French voters contemplating a European Constitution, it would have been nice to see the authors leverage those moments into opportunities to situate their big picture points about democracy in the real world.

Clarity Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is internally consistent in terms of terminology and framework

Given the text’s brevity, it has no trouble being consistent. The framework is slight to minimal, but appropriate for the length and scope of the text. Material is easily found through the table of contents—though subject headings are kept broad and no sub-headings are utilized in the contents. The web version is pretty light on bells and whistles, fairly, and keeps finding information simple. The pdf version feels OCR text so searching within is easy as well.

Consistency Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: The text is easily and readily divisible into smaller reading sections that can be assigned at different points within the course (i.e., enormous blocks of text without subheadings should be avoided). The text should not be overly self-referential, and should be easily reorganized and realigned with various subunits of a course without presenting much disruption to the reader.

If you read the PDF version of the text, the modularity is not obvious. Photos and text spill from one page to another and it is hard, even with headings, to spot the natural breaks. The web version solves this by ‘paging out’ the individual headings/chapters to their own linked webpages. The photos are still there—though no longer front and center—and getting a quick piece out of the larger text is a very doable process. When you break the text down into modular pieces, you get something that is a bit elementary for AP Comparative Politics or beyond. Given that, I could see using some of the parts of the text as a resource for students or as an in-class exercise, where the material needed is short and clear. Otherwise, each section can be consumed quickly—not great for university-level reading assignments but useful when the material is just beyond the class syllabus and a quick resource can provide needed context without a far detour.

Modularity Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The topics in the text are presented in a logical, clear fashion

While being very introductory in approach, the text takes a very big picture toward democracy. More case studies and ‘real world’ examples might have helped follow the logic throughout, but it’s an undeniably simple premise to follow, written clearly, and served up with descriptive images.

Organization Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is free of significant interface issues, including navigation problems, distortion of images/charts, and any other display features that may distract or confuse the reader

The web version of the text divides the material down into smaller 'chapters', really more like sketches as they are all quite short. It's easy to click on one and read through--the pages up as new windows so the navigation page is never lost. The pdf version is photo heavy and features OCR enabled text, so searching within the document for words or phrases is simple.

Interface Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: The text contains no grammatical errors

I could not find any grammatical errors in the text.

Grammar Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: The text is not culturally insensitive or offensive in any way. It should make use of examples that are inclusive of a variety of races, ethnicities, and backgrounds

The text is not culturally insensitive or offensive.

Cultural Relevance Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: Are there any other comments you would like to make about this book, for example, its appropriateness in a Canadian context or specific updates you think need to be made?

I would have liked to have seen more Canadian examples or mentions, but in fairness, the text is light on case studies, examples, or references to any specific place or state. The editors try to fight off criticisms of the text having an American focus with an inordinate number of images showcasing democracy around the world, but still American thinkers and leaders provide the majority of the intellectual and philosophical foundation for the text.

More importantly, I wonder seriously how useful this would be to most Canadian undergraduates. It is both broad enough to be general knowledge and yet not specific enough to generate new opportunities for discussion, dialogue, or engagement. I suspect most students understand at a base level what this text can offer about democracy. They may have confusion about a first past the post system versus an electoral college or challenges to democracy in the post-9/11 world, but I would expect my undergraduates to engage with more primary sources--the Charter for instance--than this text offers.

2. Reviewed by: Rosemary Hitchens
  • Institution: Simon Fraser University
  • Title/Position: Teaching Assistant
  • Overall Rating: 3.7 out of 5
  • Date:
  • License: Creative Commons License

Q: The text covers all areas and ideas of the subject appropriately and provides an effective index and/or glossary

True to its title, the text is brief, and thus, lacks depth and details. There is no effective index and/or glossary; however, due to its concise nature, there is no need for one. The text is blatantly biased toward the value and benefits of democracy, and rarely notes the struggles or disadvantages it faces. Moreover, the textbook often compares the system to its counter, authoritarianism, while ignoring the increasing reality of hybrid regimes. Certain key concepts, such as “transparency” are described, yet, the text fails to include the terms. Despite its shortcomings, which mostly derive from its briefness, it provides the reader with a simple and short read that explains the key concepts of democracy adequately enough.

Comprehensiveness Rating: 2 out of 5

Q: Content is accurate, error-free and unbiased

The content is accurate, and seems to be error-free. However, the textbook is biased toward democracy, and lacks any critical analysis toward the system.

Content Accuracy Rating: 3 out of 5

Q: Content is up-to-date, but not in a way that will quickly make the text obsolete within a short period of time. The text is written and/or arranged in such a way that necessary updates will be relatively easy and straightforward to implement

The content is up-to-date; however, it is perhaps already obsolete in that it fails to note the declining popularity of democracy and challenges it faces. The biased approach of the textbook lacks a realistic representation of democracy outside western countries, and a more detailed, or well-rounded text would make the text would prevent the text from becoming obsolete within a short period of time. Yet, the text is written and arranged in such a way that updates will be easy and straightforward to implement.

Relevance Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is written in lucid, accessible prose, and provides adequate context for any jargon/technical terminology used

Some key terms do not receive adequate context, such as civil society, which is a key concept to democracy that deserves its own section, or at the very least, definition. Also, the photos used throughout the text, although appropriate, were not noted in the text, and the caption failed to clearly provide adequate context for their placement. However, for the most part, the text is very lucid and accessible.

Clarity Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is internally consistent in terms of terminology and framework

The text is consistent in terms of terminology and framework. It clearly laid out its aims at the beginning of the text, and did not lost track or deviate from its stated direction.

Consistency Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is easily and readily divisible into smaller reading sections that can be assigned at different points within the course (i.e., enormous blocks of text without subheadings should be avoided). The text should not be overly self-referential, and should be easily reorganized and realigned with various subunits of a course without presenting much disruption to the reader.

The textbook is well laid out in terms of sections and subunits. However, I cannot fathom using this book as the only text for a course, as breaking it up and assigning sections would not provide the student with enough content, or reading material. But, the text is a good starting point and foundational text to democracy, and could easily correlate with additive readings due its divisible sections, which are clear and self-referential.

Modularity Rating: 5 out of 5

Q: The topics in the text are presented in a logical, clear fashion

The text holds itself up with a good organization and structure. However, the flow is occasionally disrupted with awkward sentences, and a tendency to over-quote. I felt as if this was one of the textbook’s weaknesses, as it was short and succinct, yet, dominated by quotes rather than paraphrasing, or incorporating them in the columns for example, rather than in the body.

Organization Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is free of significant interface issues, including navigation problems, distortion of images/charts, and any other display features that may distract or confuse the reader

The text was free of many technological or interface issues; but, a distraction I was drawn too was the distortion of the pictures, as many seemed blurry.

Interface Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text contains no grammatical errors

Throughout the text, I noticed numerous inconsistent spacing and comma issues. Occasionally there would appear to be an extra space, or an extra comma, and other times I noticed a missing comma or space. This affected the flow a bit at times. Also, there was a contraction used at one point in the text (don’t), which I felt should be spelled out to keep consistency.

Grammar Rating: 4 out of 5

Q: The text is not culturally insensitive or offensive in any way. It should make use of examples that are inclusive of a variety of races, ethnicities, and backgrounds

I would not consider the text culturally offensive necessarily, but it did not represent the numerous examples of semi-democracies throughout the world, many of which continue to struggle to fully implement democratic principles. The text seemed repetitive in the sense that the United States was often used, as it usually is, to illustrate the benefits of democracy, while a more culturally relevant text may have incorporated the many countries and regions who have blended non-democratic measures into their system, creating their own style of democracy.

Cultural Relevance Rating: 3 out of 5

Q: Are there any other comments you would like to make about this book, for example, its appropriateness in a Canadian context or specific updates you think need to be made?

The textbook does not include many Canadian-specific examples, yet, the case studies provided are few overall. I think this text would be best updated by incorporating an “Additional Resources” unit at the end of each section, with hyperlinks and recommended readings for students to draw from, providing them with more comprehensive and in-depth information regarding democracy in Canada and around the world.