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Adventures in Democracy. The turbulent world of People Power: A system worth voting for

A lively, accessible account of democracy, its strengths and weaknesses over the past 2,500 years – and the forces threatening it

Adventures in Democracy: The Turbulent World of People Power
Adventures in Democracy: The Turbulent World of People Power
Author: Erica Benner
ISBN-13: 978-0241609750
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £25

If there is an auspicious year to publish a book on democracy, this is probably it. In 2024 more people will be voting than at any time in history. This is not only because of the strength of democracy, but coincidently a number of populous countries happen to be holding elections, including the US, Russia, Ukraine, the UK, India, Indonesia as well as the European Union. In all, 64 countries are going to the polls this year, representing nearly half of the world’s population. Ireland will go to the polls for the European Parliament elections, local elections and, who knows, maybe a general election.

Many of the countries that will hold elections, including Russia, Belarus, North Korea and South Sudan, are hardly democratic, but it is interesting that they still feel they ought to hold elections, even though the outcome is predictable.

Erica Benner, who has taught politics at Oxford, Yale and the London School of Economics, has written a lively, accessible account of democracy, its strengths and weaknesses over the past 2,500 years. It is not a politics textbook in any conventional sense but a personal journey from her childhood in Japan, where democracy was imposed by the wartime victors, to her suburban boarding school in England, from her teenage romance with Lenin followed by Ayn Rand to teaching in newly democratic Poland. But as well as the heroes and villains of democratic discussion – Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson – her discussions are also informed by Pericles, Plato, Solon the lawgiver and Machiavelli, as well as a few Romans, Spartans and Greek playwrights. It should be pointed out that Benner wears her learning lightly.

What Benner asks is whether democracy as a form of government based on endless debates among misinformed citizens is really up to it? Her answer is yes, but it comes with a plea to throw out the self-satisfied view that western democracy is a kind of political perfection, and to bring more honesty to our conversations about the ideal versus the reality of modern democracy.


She also warns against the view that with the fall of communism we had reached the end of history and that the argument that democracy equalled progress was, to use that lovely Greek word, dangerous hubris.

Her Polish students question the democracy that they felt came from somewhere else and also the poverty that came with the fall of communism, as privatisation in the name of “liberal” democracy allowed super-rich oligarchs to emerge and prosper at the expense of ordinary people and their jobs, something the West never understood.

The answer to how people can live together in peace that Solon gave Athenians about 600 BCE – to make all citizens equal and reduce economic inequalities to ensure they can stay free and have opportunities to better their condition – is not so different from what Benner suggests for today. What can happen to politics if you don’t limit excesses of wealth, she asks? The rich can use money to legislate in their favour without regard for others, or buy up all the news and social media to push their agendas, or to play fast and dirty above the law.

But what about Trump, Le Pen, Modi and other authoritarians who are taking part in democratic exercises and what did Plato have to say? Well, the demagogue is the opposite of a good and popular leader who moderates inter-party strife and leaves the demos better off, more measured in its judgment, less reckless, willing to work across party lines for the general good.

The demagogue, on the other hand, is the leader of a fraction, who holds that he is the leader of the people against swarms of deadly enemies and tries to monopolise the political field. The relationship between the people and the demagogue is complex and it does not necessarily mean that the people just obey the power-hungry demands of the demagogue, but, she warns, if left in office for too long that is what could happen.

Corruption and division are part and parcel of all democracies, writes Benner. But the challenge that is central to the book is inequality. It’s absurd to believe that democracy invariably leads to greater equality, she argues. The inability to acknowledge this “can destroy even the most beautifully crafted constitution”.

In the end, she doesn’t prescribe a cure for the problems of democracy, 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.

Benner writes about powersharing, so it seems a pity that she didn’t look at Northern Ireland and its experiment with it. It’s also a pity that her publishers did not include an index.

Michael Foley is professor emeritus at the Technological University Dublin and was involved in media and democracy-building projects in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East