Adventures in Democracy by Erica Benner review – many men, many minds

Will not many men have many minds?” Abigail Adams asked her husband in a letter in November 1775. The American colonies were at war with Britain and founding father John Adams was in Philadelphia, making the case for independence and a new form of self-government. “I wish I knew what mighty things were fabricating,” she wrote. Not being there when notions of people power were being debated was agony for the future president’s most trusted adviser. What if democracy didn’t prove to be any less troublesome than monarchy? “I am more and more convinced,” she warned, “that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping.”

On 4 July the following year, the Declaration of Independence, which John Adams had helped draft, made the United States the first modern democracy. Nearly 250 years later, much of the western world continues to see democracy as something that goes hand in hand with progress.

But “binding democracy to progress can encourage a dangerous hubris”, argues the political philosopher Erica Benner in her new book. In a world subject to huge global pressures like inequality, war, migration and environmental degradation, “it is fair to ask whether a form of government based on endless debates among quarrelsome, misinformed citizens” is up to the challenge.

Benner’s answer is an emphatic yes, but it comes with a plea to throw out the self-satisfied view of the status quo as any kind of political perfection, and to bring more honesty to our conversations about the ideal versus the reality of modern democracy.

Her book is a whistle-stop tour of theory and practice over 2,500 years, but rather than being an intellectually taxing slog, it is a sparkling page-turner full of wit, original insight and unassuming erudition. Benner, who has taught at Oxford, LSE and Yale, regales us with stories of her “shallow teenage romance with Lenin”, life at her “Quaker school in suburban England” and how the rise of Solidarity scuppered her first attempt to visit Poland in 1980 amid nervousness about foreigners who might “stir the seething pot”. These and other personal anecdotes give an insight into the evolution of her ideas, as well as providing plenty of examples of why democracy requires constant maintenance.

Describing herself as a “citizen of nowhere in particular”, Benner is in a better position than most to shrug off the comfort blanket of national mythmaking. She was born to American parents in Tokyo, grew up in Japan and the UK, and has since lived and worked in many other countries, including Germany, Poland and Hungary.

As a gaijin, or foreigner, in postwar Japan, she witnessed the emergence of a new democracy from the vantage point of an outsider. Her father had been one of the technical officers who’d relayed the orders to strike Hiroshima, obliterating the city. His daughter grew up in a rebuilt urban landscape, enjoying the relative stability of life in the new polity even as her mother still occasionally unearthed debris from air raids in their small garden.

Japan may have myths about its ancient history, but there are no uplifting tales of the birth of its current constitution. That came courtesy of American bombs and occupation. Yet 80 years later Japan is still a functioning democracy. “So does it matter how democracies begin?” Benner asks. Yes, she concludes. If one democracy imposes its system on another, the process leaves a mark on both: self-doubt in one case, an overblown sense of power in the other.

She points out that unshakable confidence in a system set up by “preternaturally wise founding fathers” has resulted in the idea that it’s OK to tell everyone else how to do liberal democracy. That’s how the collapse of the Soviet Union came to be hailed as the “end of history”. The authoritarianism it was associated with had failed: now everyone in the world would embrace the right way of doing things.

Why, then, do many people in post-communist eastern Europe complain about the shortcomings of this system? Ewa, one of the students Benner taught in Poland in the 1990s, ventured an explanation: “Some people felt more free in the 1980s … fighting the communists.” It was the capacity to effect change that felt satisfying. “Now,” Ewa thought, “it feels like the rules and policies come from somewhere else, not from us.” Widespread dismissal of such post-communist scepticism has Benner wondering whether the world-historical victory of democracy over autocracy hasn’t also eroded “a basic democratic virtue: the capacity for self-criticism”.

She points to what can happen when champions of liberal democracy assume the battle for the moral high ground is won. Hillary Clinton’s description of half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during her presidential campaign in 2016 was a factor in her electoral loss, as she admitted herself a year later.

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Maintaining true democracy requires engaging with all its participants, Benner insists, even when they hold views one might abhor. “They exist,” she reminds her readers. “They are real.” Starting from a presumption of their “power, intelligence and independence” leads to a better understanding of why they root for illiberal figures such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán than does casting them as an ill-educated mob. Equally, Benner urges us to admit democracy’s many flaws. For one thing, it has “always had a knowledge problem”. Elections are won on popularity, not expertise. Democracy’s delicate relationship with experts came to the fore during the pandemic, when specialists suddenly had enormous influence over matters of life and death. Yet, as Benner reminds us, experts aren’t just experts; they are people, with partisan leanings, egos and careers. An honest acknowledgment of this fact would allow us to consider their views without either treating them as the word of God or dismissing them out of hand.

Problems such as corruption, deception and division are inherent to all democracies, Benner says. But the challenge that winds like a red thread through her book is inequality. It’s absurd to believe that democracy invariably leads to greater equality in any given field, she argues. The inability to acknowledge this “can destroy even the most beautifully crafted constitution”.

Benner grounds her analysis of these questions in history, an exercise that proves that there is nothing self-evident about democracy’s virtues. “Until the 19th century,” she reminds us, the word “summoned up images of Athenian mobs and demagogues.” Never falling into the trap of eulogising or demonising the past, Benner urges us simply to study it. Weren’t the Athenians on to something when they told stories of their “super-flawed” demigods and heroes? And wouldn’t school textbooks benefit from quoting Abigail Adams’ scepticism alongside her husband’s optimism about whether the new system’s imperfections could be overcome?

In the end, she doesn’t prescribe a cure, instead urging regular health checks. For all their weaknesses, democracies still come closest to creating a world in which “people can speak, criticise, love and vote without fear”. They are worth fighting for, and Benner’s book is a timely reminder that we can all play our part.

Katja Hoyer is a historian and author of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 (Allen Lane). Adventures in Democracy: The Turbulent World of People Power is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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