Why Politics Fails

Why Politics Fails

The Five Traps of the Modern World & How to Escape Them


Brought to you by Penguin.

Why do the revolving doors of power always leave us disappointed? In Why Politics Fails, award-winning Oxford professor Ben Ansell shows that it's not the politicians that are the problem, it's that our collective goals result in five political 'traps'.

Democracy: we all want a say in how we're governed, but it's impossible to have any true 'will of the people'. Equality: we want to be treated equally, but equal rights and equal outcomes undermine each other. Solidarity: we want a safety net when times are tough, but often we care about solidarity only when we need it ourselves. Security: we want protecting from harm, but not if it undermines our freedoms. Prosperity: we want to be richer tomorrow, but what makes us richer in the short run makes us poorer over the long haul.

You've probably noticed a pattern here, which is that our self-interest undermines our ability to deliver on our collective goals. And these traps reinforce one another, so a polarized democracy can worsen inequality; a threadbare social safety net can worsen crime; runaway climate change will threaten global peace.

Drawing on examples from Ancient Greece through Brexit and using his own counterintuitive and pathbreaking research - on why democracy thrives under high inequality, and how increased political and social equality can lead to greater class inequality - Ansell vividly illustrates how we can escape the political traps of our imperfect world. He shows that politics won't end, but that it doesn't have to fail.


  • A meticulous study of how different societies find it so difficult to achieve widely shared goals, like democracy, equality, a decent welfare state, security from crime and sustainable prosperity
    Nick Pearce, Financial Times

About the author

Ben Ansell

Ben Ansell is Professor of Comparative Democratic Institutions at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Following a PhD at Harvard he taught at the University of Minnesota for several years, becoming a full Professor at Oxford in 2013 at the age of thirty-five. He was made Fellow of the British Academy in 2018, among the youngest fellows at that time. His work has been widely covered in the media, including in the World Bank's World Development Report, The New York Times, The Economist, The Times and on BBC Radio 4's 'Start the Week'. He is the Principal Investigator of the multi-million-pound ERC project 'The Politics of Wealth Inequality', co-editor of the most-cited journal in comparative politics, and has written three award-winning academic books. This is his first for a general reader.
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