In her book, political philosopher Erica Benner calls for casting aside blinkered loyalty and asking tough questions of leaders in order to create a more democratic environment

In May 2022, political philosopher Erica Benner was in Istanbul to deliver a lecture. After the talk, she asked a Turkish friend if she thought that her country was a democracy. “The government says so,” was the reply. “That means it is.” That answer points to the many ways that democracy can present itself: from the “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to the “managed democracy” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the “liberal democracy” — supposedly beloved — of the West.

In her new book, Adventures in Democracy: The Turbulent World of People Power (Penguin Random House), Benner aims to clarify “the unruly realities behind democratic ideals”. To do so, she draws on her experiences in places she has lived and travelled, from Japan to Europe. She wears her erudition lightly, exploring the history of democracies in ancient Rome and Athens, as well as during the American and French Revolutions and Renaissance Florence.

Are democracies’ basic institutions working well?

The book is engaging, illuminating, and arrives at an opportune moment. Along with India, a record number of countries are going to the polls this year, and this coincides with a trend of global autocratisation highlighted by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute. Free and fair elections apart, the V-Dem report rightly stresses other aspects essential to democracy, such as freedom of expression, independent institutions, and the strength of civil society. India, in particular, is singled out as “one of the worst autocratisers lately”.

Benner’s approach is more idealistic than materialist. Her tone is measured, often exploring all sides, though she is clear that “the best way to tackle today’s problems is to spread political power more widely and evenly, not concentrate it further in the hands of leaders who may or may not care about our personal wellbeing and common future”. In such an environment, “people can speak, criticise, love and vote without fear”.

Democracy’s problems are not new. Even in ancient Athens, Benner points out, people cooked up excuses for bending the rules and picked leaders who promised to break democratic norms. Through the ages, economic and other inequalities have created gaps in political power and opportunity among citizens who are supposed to be equal. Backlashes against advances in race and gender equality have also fuelled extremism “and fed doubts about whether democracy’s basic institutions are really working for all the people”. Such fears and resentments are almost always behind the growing appeal of demagogues who appear on the stage armed with ideologies of national greatness.

How the democratic system is ripe for abuse

The freewheeling, thematically-organised chapters of Adventures in Democracy focus on issues such as competent leadership, trust in experts, educated elites, free speech, and immigration. An overriding concern is that though democratic norms encourage us to love equality, we tend to want more of it for ourselves than for the rest.

As Benner puts it: “Desires to be safer, richer, cleverer, more respected, more powerful than others…are a constant challenge to democracy’s ideals.” She draws on the experience of South Africa before it became a democracy in 1994: “It wasn’t, and isn’t, easy. Democracy needs the hyper-privileged to give up their privileges. Otherwise they’ll always feel threatened by a people power that turns violent when its other resources are feeble.”

The core of free speech, for Benner, is that it includes “the freedom to choose what not to say”. Problems arise when those in positions of power decide on the citizen’s behalf; in our time, the pushback is often loosely termed “a culture war”. Benner calls for self-restraint: a fixation on absolute freedom blurs the lines between healthy expression and respect for others’ rights. The safest way to defend this freedom, then, “is to study its different shades and degrees, talk honestly about its downsides and abuses, not frame every restriction or complaint as the start of persecution”.

As contemporary events painfully reveal, the democratic system is ripe for abuse. Moreover, “it’s remarkable how often methods of transitioning away from democracy are deployed under the name of fights for democracy, freedom and justice”. Again, this isn’t new. Benner references Thucydides to show how, when the ancient Greeks plunged into all-out fighting, people started using “justice” to mean “whatever helps me and my cause win”.

How democracy turns into despotism

As for corruption, she makes the valid point that it’s not just about bribery and shady backroom deals. It starts with smaller steps: polarised language, corporate influence, and restrictive regulations against which only a few voices protest. This lays the ground for “language, culture and economics [to] draw us all into corrupting patterns of behaviour and speech, without ever making us break the law”. It’s the system that must be scrutinised first, because that’s what leads to specific cases of venality.

At one point, she even provides a helpful checklist titled “How to turn democracy into despotism without people noticing,” which includes steps such as rewriting history textbooks, manipulating the media, creating armies of social media trolls, and announcing that your people are “fighting a holy fight against corrupt forces inside and out”. Depressingly familiar.

Benner is surely aware, even though she doesn’t overtly dwell on it, of another ever-present danger: the neoliberal conversion of citizens into consumers, which can lead to further democratic disenchantment and widen the gulf between classes. Adventures in Democracy is not specifically prescriptive, but it does gesture towards ways to create a more democratic environment. For a start, it calls for casting aside blinkered loyalty and asking tough questions of leaders, no matter how trustworthy they seem.

More than great leaders, in fact, Benner says that what is needed is “a simpler brand of heroism, a more modest and accessible kind of greatness: women and men and others who see what’s right and wrong and where the world is heading and speak their minds”. With such participatory citizenship, democracy becomes a culture, not just a form of government. It is, in short, up to all of us. We, the people.

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