Review Essay

A Good Democracy Is Hard to Find

Why Progress Takes So Long and Falls Apart So Easily

In This Review

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day
Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day
By Sheri Berman
Oxford University Press, 2019, 544 pp. Purchase

Democracy’s global travails continue to mount. What looked as recently as a decade ago to be real democratic progress in countries as diverse as Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, and Turkey has been either reversed by illiberal strongmen or unsettled by revelations of systemic corruption. Some of the most stirring recent political openings, such as those in Egypt and Myanmar, have slammed shut. The United States and several long-standing democracies in western Europe are struggling with serious democratic challenges, especially the rise of illiberal populist forces. And the two most significant nondemocratic powers, China and Russia, are strutting on the global stage.

Faced with this dispiriting state of affairs, worried observers fret over three basic questions: Why is this democratic recession happening? How bad is it? And where is it heading?

This is the backdrop for the political scientist Sheri Berman’s substantial new history of democracy in Europe. Synthesizing several decades of scholarship, Berman throws long and deep, aiming both to illuminate the causes and significance of Europe’s current democratic woes and to set realistic expectations about democracy’s chances in the many countries that have tried in recent decades to slip authoritarianism’s grip. Readers will come away from Berman’s account with useful insights on the vital question of why democracy sometimes succeeds but often does not. But it does not explicitly grapple with a further crucial question: As events push Western democracy into uncharted waters, how much can democracy’s past reveal about its future?


Berman starts her story in the seventeenth century and follows it through the defining events of modern European political history. She focuses on the large western European democracies—France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom—with two chapters on eastern Europe to round out the account. (The smaller countries of western Europe and those of northern Europe are largely absent.) The longitudinal sweep of her narrative is daunting. She tours the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the battle over the

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