January 29, 2014


REVIEW: of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present Recklessness and Resignation: Democracy in a Time of Crisis by David Runciman (Daniel Cohen, January 28th, 2014, LA Review of Books)

If the din of certain commentators is to be believed, democracy is in trouble today. For Joshua Kurlantzick, it is a time of "democracy in retreat," as he called his recent book chronicling the "worldwide decline of representative government." Philip Coggan, a respected columnist at The Economist, has a narrower focus in The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy. He's worried about Europe and the United States, where he identifies low turnout, the rise of extremist parties, growing inequality, and ageing populations as a few of the many perils for our democratic stability.

For today's doomsayers, there are historical analogies to be mined, namely the 1930s and 1970s. But no matter how alarming or alarmist these are, they are also a reminder that democracies have managed to defeat -- or at least outlast -- fascism (with help from the Soviet Union) and state communism (with help from the Soviet Union). To truly frighten readers, you have to convince them that this time will be different. [...]

The story starts with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Runciman calls "the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis." It is a telling choice: like Runciman, Tocqueville is a calm thinker who shuns extremes and easy pieties. Central to The Confidence Trap is Tocqueville's idea of "democratic fatalism." In democracies, citizens feel confident that the form of government will survive, and consequently they "follow the course of their destiny weakly rather than make a sudden and energetic effort when needed to address it." But as Runciman notes, while this often engenders passivity, it can also have the opposite effect:

It was part of Tocqueville's genius to recognise that democratic fatalism went along with recklessness as well as resignation. What's more, he understood that it could sometimes be hard to tell the difference between the two.

For Runciman, recklessness and resignation serve a purpose. In the history of democracy that he wants to tell, "good news and bad news feed off each other."

This is the democracy trap: "You cannot have the good of democratic progress without the bad of democratic drift." Runciman insists that, for democracies, mistakes are survived but they are not learned from; this encourages complacency and guarantees future mistakes. In a signature chiastic flourish, he writes: "The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success."

Crisis can therefore be useful -- and not just for the politicians who stand to profit from it. In 1962, West Germany's defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, signed off on a raid on the office of the magazine Der Spiegel with the consent of Konrad Adenauer, the country's chancellor. The resulting scandal forced Strauss's resignation and an agreement from Adenauer to stand down the next year (he was 86 at the time). In the first decade and a half of West Germany, Adenauer justified his strong-man rule as necessary to nurturing democracy at a time when it could ill afford a crisis. But as Runciman notes, "it turned out that a crisis was precisely what West German democracy needed at this stage of its development": it enabled debate and brought a new generation of intellectuals into the public conversation.

The years that Runciman has chosen are often surprising and characteristic of his counterintuitive approach. Few would argue that 1933 was a bad year for democracy, but for Runciman, it is an example of how we see such events through hindsight's distorted lens. He shows how, for contemporaries, the event that exemplified the failure of the democracies was not Hitler's election as chancellor but the failure of the World Economic Conference in London, seen as "a final chance for the world's leading economies to arrest the slide into chaos." At a time when admiration for fascism and Stalinism could be found in the mainstream (Runciman quotes Keynes hailing both of "these magnificent experiments"), the inability of the conference's attendees to come to an agreement seemed to confirm the fundamental ineffectiveness of liberal democracy -- a criticism that recurred throughout the century.

Even more unexpected is Runciman's devoting of a chapter to 1989. Today, the year is commonly regarded as one of democracy's great victories and a high-water mark of democratic triumphalism: the time of walls falling and history ending. Runciman reminds us that the intellectual atmosphere at the time was in fact much gloomier -- the 1980s were "an extension of the 1970s rather than a preview of the 1990s." The non-fiction blockbusters of the time -- Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind -- were marked by pessimism and familiar fears about the decline of the west. Francis Fukuyama, for all his misplaced confidence in the victory of liberal democracy, was not especially cheery about the world it would bring: the end of history would, he lamented in his famous article of that year, be "a very sad time," in which there would be "neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history."

We'd rather lie to ourselves and pretend we face unprecedented challenges than acknowledge that we live unheroic lives.

Posted by at January 29, 2014 2:33 PM

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