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What Was Democracy? | The Nation

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What Was Democracy?

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Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

The Logic of Discipline
Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government.
By Alasdair Roberts.
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Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt.
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The Society of Equals
By Pierre Rosanvallon.
Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer.
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The Crisis of the European Union
A Response.
By Jürgen Habermas.
Translated from the German by Ciaran Cronin.
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The Confidence Trap
A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present.
By David Runciman.
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One must travel north to the bucolic enclave of Cambridge, England, to find a historically sensitive and subtle response to the democratic crisis. In The Confidence Trap, the English political theorist David Runciman avoids nostalgia and Band-Aid-ism, only to question whether liberal democracy is in crisis at all. Our current democratic rupture, Runciman argues, is not as unique as one might think. Democrats throughout the ages have believed democracy to be in crisis, and yet, time and again, democracies have recovered. Though democracies always look to be on the brink of disaster, they have deeper resources than democrats themselves realize.

Runciman tells the history of the twentieth century as a series of crisis points for democracies that seemed insurmountable at the time, but ultimately proved manageable. The greatest strength of democracy, Runciman argues, is its flexibility. This becomes particularly important in one of the greatest crises democracies can face—war. In moments of international conflict, autocracies seem to have all the advantages: their command structures are more streamlined, their leaders less dependent on public opinion, and their submissive ideology makes it easier to send tens of thousands of men into battle at a dictator’s whim. But Runciman argues that authoritarianism’s apparent strengths can quickly lead to a crippling rigidity. If autocracies gain an immediate advantage, they are on the road to victory. But if their initial strategy is not enough to carry the day, they have trouble adjusting to new circumstances.

Democracies are the opposite. At the beginning of a conflict, they dither and dodge. Pacific domestic opinion often forces democratic leaders into a position of weakness, delaying armament or troop deployments far too long. But as conflict escalates, they tend to gain the upper hand. While their authoritarian adversaries have trouble letting go of failing strategies and failed generals, democracies can adjust on the fly. The longer a war, the better the odds of democratic victory. Democracies afford their citizens the right to identify anything as a crisis—which can lead to a kind of hypochondria of the body politic. But this also means that when a real crisis comes around, they’re able to identify ad hoc solutions. Democracy’s apparent weaknesses can often be converted into strengths.

But not always: democracies, says Runciman, must not take the advantage afforded by their flexibility for granted. In order for democracies to withstand their frequent crises, two conditions that stand in tension with each other have to be met. First, citizens need to have enough confidence in democracy to let an ugly, seemingly dysfunctional and, at times, conspicuously irrational political process play out. Second, they must not have so much trust in democracy that they put off dealing with crises forever in the expectation that some solution will miraculously appear. Once democrats grow too self-assured in the future prospects of democracy, they are in danger of running afoul of the “confidence trap”: if we overestimate the ability of democracies to overcome any crisis, we grow too complacent to activate the system’s inherent strengths.

Runciman’s idea of a confidence trap explains a lot—so much, in fact, that it explains almost nothing at all. As he acknowledges, there is something paradoxical about the idea of a confidence trap. It contains two conflicting predictions. If people don’t have enough trust in democracy, the long-term strengths of the system—which can only manifest themselves if electorates are willing to stick with their government through prolonged periods of disarray—will never make themselves known. But if people have too much trust in democracy, their expectations may exceed what the system can deliver. When people put off dealing with a crisis year after year in the knowledge that democracies have always muddled through before, it is their very confidence that becomes glib and is therefore a problem. But what can all this possibly suggest about our contemporary moment? Are the Tea Partiers who tell us we are on the brink of disaster a sign that America’s confidence in democracy has started to wane? Or is our unwillingness to take immediate political action about climate change a sign that we have too much confidence in democracy? Either way, Runciman gets to say ”I told you so.”

Runciman’s “confidence trap” seems ultimately to be less of a trap than a self-fulfilling platitude: democracies, he tells us, can muddle through a crisis until they can’t. But this makes it too easy to dismiss those citizens of a democracy who think they have spotted a crisis. Of course the doomsayers of yesterday have turned out to be wrong. Those who predicted the fall of the Republic of Venice were also wrong—wrong for 1,000 years—until they were right. Each of the crises described with such lucidity and élan by Runciman—World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1970s oil shocks—was unprecedented. At the time, the historical record offered no guidance as to whether democracy could meet the test. It turns out that these were crises that democracy was able to surmount. But all of this provides scant comfort to those who worry about the crises of today.

The Confidence Trap shows why it is so difficult in the present moment to write a satisfying book about democracy: if the historical record can’t show that we’re sure to overcome current crises, neither can it possibly prove that we’re going to succumb to them. This means that many of the most interesting claims about democracy are—by definition—unprovable. Perhaps the doomsayers of the day will look like prophets fifty years from now; perhaps they will look like cranks. From the present vantage point, we simply cannot know.

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