November 22, 2013


Democracy's Dual Dangers (David Runciman, 11/18/13, The Chronicle Review)

There is no decade from the past century when it is not possible to find an extended debate among commentators and intellectuals in the democratic West about the inadequacies of democratic politics. This is not true of only those decades when Western democracy was clearly on the ropes, like the 1930s, when it was menaced by fascism, or the 1970s, when it was threatened by inflation and oil shock. It's also true of the prosperous and relatively stable decades as well. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann led the charge, arguing that democratic publics were far too ill-informed and inattentive to manage their own affairs. In the 1950s, academics worried about the banality and exhaustion of democratic life. Daniel Bell took a positive stance with his claims about the end of ideology, but for the most part democracy was treated as a cumbersome, careless system of government, in permanent danger of being outwitted by the Soviets.

The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure.

Even the 1980s, which we now look back on as a time of emergent democratic triumphalism, were dominated by prophecies of doom. Consider the two best-selling academic books from the end of that decade. One, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), argued that the endemic triviality of mass democracy would destroy the minds of the young, leaving them unable to distinguish good from bad. (Bloom blamed, among other people, Mick Jagger.) The second, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), foretold American decline as the demands of sustaining a global empire would overwhelm the capacity of the American people to put up with them.

The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure. The intellectual commentator who first spotted this distinctive feature of democratic life (and who did most to explain it) was Alexis de Tocque­ville. When he traveled to America, in 1831, Tocqueville was immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics. Citizens were always complaining, and their politicians were endlessly throwing mud at one another. The grumbling discontent was frequently interrupted by bursts of outright panic as resentments spilled over.

Yet Tocqueville noticed something else about American democracy: that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable. Citizens' discontent coincided with an underlying faith that democratic politics would see them right in the end.

There is no more intolerable idea than that the times you live in are devoid of drama and you face no significant challenges.
Posted by at November 22, 2013 6:32 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus