Review of “Adventures in Democracy” by Erica Benner: Diverse Opinions in a Democratic Society
In November 1775, in a letter to her husband, Abigail Adams posed the question, “Will not many men have many minds?” At the time, the American colonies were engaged in a war with Britain and John Adams, one of the founding fathers, was in Philadelphia advocating for independence and a new form of self-governance. In her letter, Abigail expressed her desire to know what significant events were unfolding. The fact that she was not present during the discussions on people’s power was difficult for her as she was her husband’s most trusted advisor. She worried about the potential dangers of democracy and cautioned that man is an inherently dangerous being who will always seek more power, whether it is in the hands of many or a select few.
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.
However, Erica Benner, a political philosopher, argues in her latest book that linking democracy with progress may lead to a dangerous overconfidence. In a world facing significant global issues such as inequality, war, migration, and environmental degradation, it is reasonable to question whether a system of government based on never-ending debates among argumentative and uninformed citizens can effectively address these challenges.
According to Benner, the answer is a resounding yes. However, it comes with a request to reject the complacent belief that the current state of affairs is politically flawless, and to have more candid discussions about the contrast between the ideal and the actuality of contemporary democracy.
The book offers a comprehensive overview of theory and practice spanning 2,500 years. However, instead of being a difficult read, it is an engaging and witty page-turner that showcases the author’s original insights and unpretentious knowledge. Benner, a former professor at esteemed universities such as Oxford, LSE, and Yale, shares entertaining stories from her youth, including her teenage infatuation with Lenin and her experiences at a Quaker school in suburban England. She also reflects on how the rise of Solidarity impacted her initial plans to visit Poland in 1980, highlighting concerns about foreigners stirring up trouble. These personal anecdotes not only shed light on the development of her ideas, but also emphasize the importance of constantly maintaining democracy.
Benner, who refers to herself as a “citizen of nowhere specific,” has a unique perspective that allows her to dismiss the false sense of security created by national storytelling. She was born to American parents in Tokyo, raised in Japan and the UK, and has resided and worked in various other nations such as Germany, Poland, and Hungary.
As a foreigner in Japan after the war, she observed the development of a new democratic society from an outsider’s perspective. Her father was a technical officer responsible for relaying the orders to bomb Hiroshima, resulting in its destruction. Growing up in a reconstructed city, she experienced the stability of life in the new government while her mother would sometimes uncover remnants from air raids in their small garden.
Japan has stories of its past that may not be entirely accurate, but there are no inspiring stories about the origins of its present constitution. This was a result of the United States bombing Japan and occupying it. Despite this, Japan has managed to maintain a democratic system for 80 years. Author Benner poses the question of whether the way a democracy begins is significant. According to her, it is, as the imposition of one democracy’s system on another can have lasting effects on both parties, such as self-doubt or an inflated sense of power.
The author highlights the belief that unwavering trust in a system created by exceptionally wise founding fathers has led to the notion that it is acceptable to dictate how liberal democracy should be practiced. This belief was further solidified when the collapse of the Soviet Union was celebrated as the “end of history”. The failure of authoritarianism was seen as a triumph, with the assumption that the entire world would adopt the correct approach to governance.
Why do many individuals in post-communist eastern Europe express dissatisfaction with this system? Ewa, a former student of Benner’s in Poland during the 1990s, offered an explanation: “Some people felt more liberated in the 1980s when they were fighting against the communists.” The ability to bring about change was fulfilling. However, Ewa now feels that “the rules and policies are imposed on us from an external source, rather than being determined by us.” Benner questions the widespread dismissal of such post-communist skepticism and wonders if the triumph of democracy over autocracy has also weakened “a fundamental democratic value: the ability for self-reflection and 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.
According to Benner, maintaining a true democracy involves engaging with all participants, even if their views are disagreeable. She reminds readers that these individuals exist and are real. Approaching them with the assumption of their power, intelligence, and independence can help understand why they support illiberal leaders like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, or Viktor Orbán, rather than simply labeling them as uneducated. Additionally, Benner encourages acknowledging the flaws of democracy, such as its inherent knowledge problem. Elections are often won based on popularity rather than expertise. The pandemic highlighted democracy’s complex relationship with experts, as they suddenly held significant influence over life and death decisions. However, Benner reminds us that experts are not just experts; they are people with their own biases, egos, and careers. Acknowledging this fact can allow us to consider their perspectives without blindly accepting them or immediately dismissing them.
According to Benner, issues like corruption, deceit, and conflict are present in all democratic systems. However, the main issue that is consistently addressed in her book is inequality. She argues that it is illogical to assume that democracy always results in equal opportunities. Failure to recognize this fact can undermine even the most well-written constitution.
Benner uses historical analysis to challenge the commonly held belief that democracy is inherently virtuous. She reminds us that before the 19th century, democracy was associated with negative connotations such as mob rule and demagoguery. Rather than glorifying or condemning the past, Benner encourages us to learn from it. Perhaps the ancient Athenians were onto something when they shared stories of their flawed demigods and heroes. And in order to gain a more balanced understanding of democracy, school textbooks should include both Abigail Adams’ skepticism and her husband’s optimism about the potential for overcoming its imperfections.
Ultimately, she does not provide a remedy, but rather encourages routine health evaluations. Despite their flaws, democracies remain the closest to achieving a society where individuals can freely express themselves, offer criticism, show affection, and participate in voting without apprehension. These values are worth defending, and Benner’s publication serves as a timely prompt that we all have a role to play.