What Was Democracy?
If information technology turns out to have world-historical significance, it is not because of its economic promise, still less because it may facilitate the toppling of dictators. It is because information technology makes plain that the story democracies have told about themselves for more than two centuries has been a bluff.
Democracy, as we know it in the modern world, is based on a peculiar compromise. The word to which we pay such homage means the “rule of the people.” But insofar as we can claim to govern ourselves at all, we do so in a remarkably indirect way. Every few years, the citizens of modern democracies make their way to the polls to cast their votes for a limited set of candidates. Once they have acquitted themselves of this duty, their elected representatives take over. In the daily functioning of democracy, the public is marginal.
This is not what democracy once looked like. In ancient Athens, the citizens constituted at most one-fifth of the population—the rest were women, children, resident aliens and slaves. But those Athenians who did count as citizens had a direct voice in matters of justice and war. The idea that a people should meet in public to discuss what to do was not unique to the Greeks—several indigenous societies across the world deliberated in similar ways—but nothing approaching direct democracy has been tried on a mass scale in the modern world.
The American founders were adamant that it could not be otherwise. The body of the people, John Adams declared, “can never act, consult, or reason together, because they cannot march five hundred miles, nor spare the time, nor find a space to meet; and, therefore, the proposition, that they are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true. They are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all.” Adams was dismissing one of the last gasps of the radical republican tradition—the Anti-Federalists, mostly composed of farmers and minor artisans in the colonies. Their arguments for making political life in America as local as possible were trumped by the founders’ superior propaganda and their vision of a republic that would encompass a much larger territory. Since then, for more than 200 years, almost every political thinker has conceded that the constraints of time and space make direct democracy impracticable. Even those who did not share the founders’ contempt for popular rule—Robespierre, Bolívar, Lenin—have acknowledged that representative institutions are unavoidable.
As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner.
The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves. The very word “democracy” indicts the political reality of most modern states. It takes a considerable degree of delusion to believe that any modern government has been “by” the people in anything but the most incidental way. In the digital age, the claim that the political participation of the people in decision-making makes democracy a legitimate form of government is only that much hollower. Its sole lingering claim to legitimacy—that it allows the people the regular chance to remove leaders who displease them—is distinctly less inspiring. Democracy was once a comforting fiction. Has it become an uninhabitable one?
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Whether so-called modern “democracies” are “for” the people is barely a more open question. On the one hand, we live in highly bureaucratic states that require ever-increasing degrees of technical competence. We expect our governments to do more and to do it better. The more our expectations are addressed, the more bureaucratic and opaque government becomes and the less democratic control is possible. On the other hand, in many countries, impatient populist parties have come to power promising to correct economic and political injustice in ways more rapid and sweeping than liberal principles and procedures allow. Poised between these two poles of bureaucratic technocracy and majoritarian populism, both of which can turn ugly, the democratic ideology of the midcentury American variety—“liberal democracy,” with its commitment to free speech, institutional checks and balances, and multiple parties—is increasingly incapable of satisfying its populations and attracting new ones. The signs of disaffection are not hard to detect: across the world, ordinary citizens are coming to realize that the confident assumption that liberal democracy would deliver prosperity, security, and some kind of existential reassurance may be a mirage.
There are three principal reasons for democracy’s deepening crisis of legitimacy. The first is rooted in what Alasdair Roberts has called “the logic of discipline,” which refers to the strictures that the draftsmen of global capitalism introduced into the blueprints of national governments during the past three decades. Gaining political traction in the late 1970s, a reformist movement that harbored a deep skepticism of the merits of democratic governance of the economy swept through Bonn, Washington, London and finally Paris. In the wake of the oil crises and high inflation, this movement, a coalition of liberals and libertarians, believed it had identified significant weaknesses in democratic governments, whose election cycles encouraged shortsighted, unstable policies that only seemed to benefit powerful lobbies and voting blocs, special interests and the bureaucracy itself. Most distressing of all, national central banks were directed by members of popularly elected governments, who increased inflation to boost employment and tinkered with monetary policy to stimulate short-term economic booms. To remedy such “bad” habits, these self-styled emancipators of the market trumpeted the call to make states more accountable and efficient. This meant, above all, insulating monetary policy from electoral politics, opening up certain sectors of domestic markets to increased international competition, eliminating capital controls and demonizing inflation, which for decades had been one of the primary, if erratic, means by which capitalist democracies redistributed wealth.
What began as an ideological project—as one choice among many that policy-makers might have taken—has since taken on a compelling logic of its own. The economic decisions of the 1970s have done much to shape the form globalization has taken. Now, with world trade more pervasive, and with the domestic economies of even the most affluent nations deeply dependent on foreign investments, the ideological predilections of a few governments have become the preoccupation of all. There is a reason why all mainstream politicians now make decisions based on variables such as the risk of capital flight and the reactions of bond rating agencies, rather than on traditional calculations about the will of their electorates. As the German economist Wolfgang Streeck has argued, this shift in political calculus occurred because the most significant constituency of democracies is no longer voters but the creditors of public debt. Some politicians are, no doubt, very grateful to dress their preferences up in global capital’s language of necessity. But many others submit to the logic of a globalized economy with genuine regret—and for those who are tempted to stray from the program, the recent fates of several countries (from Greece in Europe to Argentina in Latin America and Zimbabwe in Africa) show just how severe the punishment can be.
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The second, more palpable reason for the sharpening pitch of democratic fatalism originates in this misplaced free-market optimism. The generational rise in prosperity often thought to be an outcome of, or a prerequisite for, both liberal and social democracy has tapered off. The poor economies of the Global South and the rich economies of the West have lately entered into similar positions of political-economic imbalance, but from opposite directions.
In the Arab world, for instance, autocracies remained stable so long as low levels of opportunity were matched by the low expectations most people had for their own economic future. Over the past decades, as expectations rose, the economic foundations of regime stability were undermined. In the West, by contrast, the expectations gap has been produced not by rising expectations but by dwindling opportunities. The starting point was the eve of World War I, when the West boasted a highly educated population that enjoyed seemingly boundless economic opportunity. Today, a more educated generation contends for a smaller number of satisfying jobs. While Egypt and the United States may be in different phases of economic and political development, the expectations gap at the root of protests against the status quo in both countries is strikingly similar.
The problem of the expectations gap points to a vulnerable spot in liberal democratic politics. While the leaders and citizens of liberal democracies have come to believe that their system naturally produces better outcomes than other arrangements, its more honest theorists have long maintained that the core achievement of liberal democracy is much more modest: it guarantees a political process that allows people to make bad decisions without jeopardizing the entire political order. It does not guarantee good political or economic outcomes.
If the heartland of capitalist liberal democracy can be riven by an expectations gap, there is reason to wonder whether what we call “democracy” may not be so different from other political systems after all: perhaps only our arrogance has kept us from seeing it as one type of rule among many, struggling to satisfy the high expectations of its people in a time of economic stultification and stratification. Like monarchies, oligarchies and autocracies, democracies too are mortal. This sense is only compounded by the third reason for the dilution of the ideology of liberal democracy: the faith never spread very thickly in the first place. The word “democracy” was indigenized in ways more various than Americans like to admit. Outside of a few outliers such as India and the United States, where deep in the provinces one still encounters something like religious zeal for democracy, many people in nominal democracies around the world do not believe they are inheritors of a sacral dispensation. Nor should they.
Countries as various as Turkey and Thailand—to choose only two currently undergoing severe democratic crises—originally looked to Western examples when choosing political models for their states. At the time of their birth, however, each of them managed only to plant a seedbed for Western-sanctioned bourgeois democracy in a relatively small patch of their urban populations. For the villager in the rural regions of Cappadocia and the Isan, the arrival of “democracy” was not very different from the forms of clientelism and patrimony that preceded it and continued to co-exist within it: one decade you gave certain goods to your political fixer, the next decade you voted for him. Now, as these ex-rural masses make new demands on their states, win elections and crowd out resources, it is not surprising that the longtime inhabitants of Istanbul and Bangkok have pitted themselves against them in anti-populist battle, all the while developing a taste for human rights and liberal values. This is not to condone the violent and populist tactics of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Yingluck Shinawatra, but to underscore a well-known fact about the thin veil of “democracy” in the twentieth century: it often thrived by excluding a vast number of fellow citizens in the hinterland from a decent share in the political and economic life of the nation. “Democracy” has always been easier to achieve when citizens share the same mental and moral universe; in places where they do not, it is hardly shocking if widening the franchise includes outbreaks of political violence. Conversely, it is telling that one of the common uses of direct democratic procedures in the world—the insidious referenda of California, Switzerland, Gujarat and the Crimea—is to safeguard economic privileges and bogus ethnic and sexual solidarities that are perceived to be threatened from the outside.
But if those outsiders continue to rally around the word, it is because for much of the twentieth century “democracy” was synonymous with modernization, economic uplift and individual self-realization. For this reason, nearly every country today advertises itself as democratic, but the blanket adjective obscures a set of political realities that demand a less specious appraisal. There is no steady convoy of nations converging on liberal democracy in the world today, but rather monarchies trying to keep democracy at bay (Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia); oligarchies posing as social democracies (Indonesia); theocratic republics (Iran); totalitarian patriarchies (North Korea); democratic populist governments facing elitist uprisings (Thailand, Turkey); socialist gerontocratic oligarchies (Algeria); praetorian oligarchies (Burma); democratic populist governments facing populist uprisings from their own constituencies (Brazil, Argentina); anti-liberal autocracies (the Russian Federation); anti-liberal democracies (Hungary); and constitutional plutocratic republics (the United States). Even this crude typology compels the question of whether the world would not be better off—and would suffer much less violence and misunderstanding, with due deference to their political aspirations—if we began thinking about these states as they are, and not as we or they wish them to be.
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The fate of the idea and reality of democracy is being nowhere more severely tested than in Europe, where the pitched battle between right-wing populism and technocracy—with the democratic national welfare state caught in between—is most openly in view. The continent displays the full gamut of democratic afflictions, from the pure technocracy of Mario Monti’s brief, unpopular government in Italy to the right-wing populism of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary to the rise of citizen assemblies in Bosnia determined to replace a sclerotic social democracy with something yet unknown. This only makes the state of current thought about democracy by several of the most representative European thinkers all the more puzzling and, if intellectual thought contains the grains of future political possibilities, more despairing. “Crisis of democracy” comes easily to the lips of every thinker on the continent, yet the remedies on offer are not only inadequate in most cases, but also testify to an intellectual softening that appears to have set in over the course of the past three decades. Mostly, European intellectuals have diagnosed limited problems: rising inequality, immigration pressures, tensions in Franco-German relations, Russian intransigence. They have explained the emergence of these problems by invoking relatively local causes: the ideological obtuseness of Margaret Thatcher or the perpetual ineffectiveness of center-left parties such as France’s Parti Socialiste. And so, they conclude, containing the crisis of democracy calls for familiar solutions: more regulations and higher taxes on capital, a determined defense of existing welfare provisions, or calls for a bottom-up mass movement that will somehow come from the left rather than the right.
Such nostrums may be comforting, but they have become fatal to the left’s ability to win political victories and, if they do, to govern effectively. Two distinct temperaments now prevail among most European intellectuals who have tried to diagnose the crisis of democracy, and neither is conducive to effective political action: nostalgia for the social-democratic past, and technocratic faith in policy Band-Aids that might somehow repair the social-democratic project. Some intellectuals operate primarily in the first mode, some primarily in the second; most draw on both. What they share is a reluctance to realize the seriousness of the current crisis—an unwillingness that leads them to underestimate the difficulty of formulating an adequate response.
The nostalgic camp is occupied by figures as various as Pierre Rosanvallon and the late Tony Judt. In the wake of the neoliberal revolutions of the 1980s and the Soviet collapse, Judt, an Anglo-American historian, and Rosanvallon, a French sociologist, argue that the pursuit of material self-interest became central to the way we live now. Inequality rapidly rose, and living standards for average citizens rapidly fell. “Wealth creators,” from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, became cultural heroes. Worst of all, in good part because Marxism lost what remained of its residual prestige by the 1980s, we became “unable to conceive of alternatives,” in Judt’s phrase, or to imagine a “society of equals,” in Rosanvallon’s. With no alternative vision to aspire to, we have come to think of even the most obviously unjust aspects of our contemporary economic order as inevitable.
The response that Judt and Rosanvallon call for is simple: reject the idea that there are no alternatives. Once we have done so, we will have the courage to reassert the primacy of politics over economics by creating a more equal society. Some of our old institutional arrangements may need to be adjusted to contain the noxious effects of globalization, but the heyday of the egalitarian past provides a clear enough guide for a more egalitarian future. For Judt, winning the good fight is a matter of reviving, with slight modifications, the social-democratic welfare state that came into bloom in Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Rosanvallon, the fall from grace occurred earlier. He sees the historical sweet spot for democratic equality in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Western European governments, in response to the “first globalization,” invented new forms of social redistribution and social insurance. For him, new ways need to be found to cushion citizens from another phase of global capitalist integration.
The vision of the nostalgic camp is undoubtedly attractive. But as much as we might like to live in the world that Judt and Rosanvallon evoke, it does not mean that we can. There are several reasons why the golden age of social democracy is gone for good, and the roots of our failure of imagination run much deeper than Judt and Rosanvallon acknowledge. The social-democratic parties of Europe, after all, had become ideologically depleted well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Partially this owed to their victories. So successful were social democrats in shaping postwar European states in their image that, by the late 1970s, they had few new demands around which to rally their members. European social democracy—a movement that had once been progressive, that had hoped and believed it could bring about a better future—slowly evolved into a movement marked by deep conservatism, whose primary goal has been to prevent changes to the status quo.
Yet Judt, in his mode as a professional historian, already acknowledged this stasis in his masterpiece Postwar. The post-ideological consensus generated by the success of social democracy in the 1970s, he showed, is part of what made it so vulnerable to dismantling by both free-market technocrats and populists. Likewise, American military power, which had contributed to making the space for social democracy possible in Western Europe (in part by shutting off the more radical elements that sprang from World War II partisan movements), was coming under attack by European citizens who felt implicated in its violence. The inability to conceive of alternatives was not brought about by the fall of Soviet communism; it was the result of a process in which the strong social-democratic parties won a string of victories and started to define themselves predominantly as the guardians of those gains, rather than the advocates of new ones.
Conceiving an alternative political vision is never a matter of sheer will or talent; it is possible only in the right historical conditions. Once social democrats had reinvented themselves as guardians of the status quo, changing economic circumstances undermined even that limited ambition. After the devastation of Europe in World War II, the continent feverishly rebuilt itself and enjoyed the growth rate of a developing country. By the late 1970s, this period had come to an end. High employment began to recede, and demographers noted that longer life expectancies threatened to make pension systems unsustainable. A host of interrelated transformations were fracturing the foundations of the welfare state, and social democrats themselves no longer had a powerful vision of a better future.
All of this makes the palliatives on offer from the European nostalgics drastically unsatisfactory. Their lamentations about the present are seductive, but their solutions ultimately revolve around a return to a state of affairs that has been embattled—for deep structural, economic, political and geopolitical reasons—for many decades. The leaders of the left, from Italy to the United Kingdom, committed many blunders during the past three decades. But in their defense, their task was complicated. If it were just a matter of convincing electorates not to forfeit social protections in the pursuit of selfish values, even such terminally uninspired leaders as Romano Prodi and Gerhard Schröder might have succeeded. But their actual task was twofold: to conserve what is best about the social-democratic settlement—which, economically speaking, would require them to change everything, so everything could remain the same—and to develop a new vision of the left that would cast off the drab conservatism that has marked it for so long. Faced with such a challenge, it is hardly surprising that social democrats instead settled for an uneasy mix of right-wing opportunism and left-wing conservatism.
In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville had good reason to believe that the progress of equality was inevitable. Though he did not welcome its prospect, he was convinced that aristocratic nostalgics who hoped to hold fast were deluding themselves. If something was going to impede the march of equality, it would have to be a new political vision that took as its starting point the incontrovertible fact that the ancien régime was irretrievable. Today, our situation is reversed. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the return to conditions of increasing economic inequality, which very quickly precludes political equality. If something is going to stop this development, it is going to be a new political vision that acknowledges at its starting point that the sun has set on the golden age of social democracy.
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Faced with Europe’s most traumatic half-decade since World War II, some leading European thinkers have realized that they should at least pretend to have something more than nostalgia to offer. Since truly new ideas are elusive, even those intellectuals who claim that they have relevant suggestions content themselves with repackaging the same solutions they had proffered long before the crisis. By and large, this means they have expunged words like “Germany,” “France” and “nation-state” from their old tracts, and replaced them with “Europe” instead. These are the same old Band-Aids that, to add incongruity to tragedy, had originally been offered as a solution to a different problem altogether.
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck, for example, rose to prominence in the 1980s with his work on the “Risk Society”—the idea that industrial society’s success in dominating nature and creating economic growth had led to new kinds of risk, against which existing institutions were an inadequate protection. What was needed to deal with these new risks, said Beck, was a new social contract, in which nation-states redefined and expanded their willingness to care for their people. In his new primer on the crisis, German Europe, it has occurred to Beck that these risks exist at the European as well as the national level. Beck’s solution? A new social contract for Europe.
Another proponent of Band-Aid-ism is the Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs. Van Parijs has made his career arguing for nation-states to provide their citizens with a “basic income”: the material resources to live their lives in a self-determined manner, freed from worries about subsistence. In response to the euro crisis, Van Parijs has identified new arguments for old solutions. Because one of the problems afflicting Europe is the lack of interstate transfers, he believes the solution is to expand direct transfers of money between European countries. The European Union, he suggests, should levy a value-added tax that would allow it to provide each citizen with a “modest” euro-dividend—according to one model he has suggested, 200 euros per month. Never mind that this plan would neither create sufficient transfers for stabilizing the European monetary system nor provide enough money for even the thriftiest European citizens to be freed from worries about subsistence.
The most renowned European intellectual, and still the most influential, is Jürgen Habermas. In his early political writing, Habermas argued that the liberal veneer of postwar Germany was a feeble attempt to conceal the country’s continuities with the Third Reich. But as Germany’s democracy liberalized, and as many of the more radical hopes of the 1968 movement turned out to be dangerous illusions, Habermas came to hail the Federal Republic as an anti-fascist bulwark. Recognizing the need for Germans to take pride in their postwar achievements, yet afraid that this could lead to a resurgent nationalism, he urged a form of “constitutional patriotism.” Instead of founding their identity upon history or ethnicity, Germans should pledge their allegiance to the country’s Basic Law. For Habermas, the euro crisis is an analogous problem that calls for an analogous solution. The people of Europe distrust the EU because they perceive it as anti-democratic, and they have little tolerance for interstate transfers because their primary identity continues to be an ethnic and cultural allegiance to the nation-state. So Habermas argues for a “Constitution for Europe.” By rendering the EU a little more democratic, he hopes to create a focal point for the allegiance of European citizens—a kind of constitutional patriotism at the European level. Problem solved.
The Federal Republic’s ability to win over the loyalty of its citizens has been one of the great liberal-democratic successes of the second half of the twentieth century. There is good reason to think that, even today, the country’s institutions remain among the most resilient in the world. But though Germans may like their constitution, their nationalism remains rooted in culture, ethnicity and history to a much greater extent than Habermas acknowledges. Constitutional patriotism, admirable though the idea is, has never gained much of a foothold beyond the seminar rooms of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research. The same is doubly true for the prospect that refinements to the institutional setup of the European Union, which Habermas now champions as a solution to the euro crisis, could provide a foundation for constitutional patriotism and economic solidarity at the European level. If there is one thing that most Europeans from Trondheim to Thessaloniki have in common, it is that an ethnic conception of nationhood remains much more fundamental to their identity than Habermas cares to admit. To transpose a national fix to the international level may be the easiest intellectual response to Europe’s current predicament, but it only serves to replicate, and then to compound, the political problems with the original proposal.
If Habermas believes that his resized Band-Aid might heal Europe’s wound, it is because—like so many of his professorial colleagues on the continent—he has hesitated to grasp that the foundations of Europe’s postwar political consensus are at stake. Because the euro is unsustainable without significant institutional reform, Europe has to choose between taking a leap toward a further integration that nobody really wants, or dismantling institutions that make up the core of the European project. At the historical juncture at which the EU seemed to approach a natural point of stasis—the moment when most Europeans had grown deeply attached to its more visible achievements, like freedom of movement, while making a habit of rejecting any further step toward integration whenever politicians were foolhardy enough to give them a choice—the euro crisis has rendered the stasis impossible to sustain. By assuring European elites that sentimental popular commitment is sure to follow if only the right institutions are put in place, intellectuals like Habermas and Van Parijs only encourage them to rush toward more integration. The problem with their vision is not only that—as elections for the European Parliament will soon make abundantly clear—for all the sincere talk about the need for European institutions to become more democratic, such a step would go against the expressed wishes of a majority of Europeans; it’s also liable to provoke a nationalist and xenophobic backlash that evidently surpasses the imaginative capacity of some of the continent’s leading intellectuals.
It is partly frustration with this lack of imagination that has led to the coronation of Thomas Piketty, an until recently obscure French economist armed with data about the history of wealth distribution, as the new intellectual prince of Europe [see Timothy Shenk, “What Was Socialism?”, May 5, 2014]. The enthusiastic reception in the United States of Piketty’s rigorous Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which answers the empirical spirit of the age with a welcome rush of statistics, may be a promising sign of renewal in the otherwise sedate intellectual pastures of the continent. To have made the word “redistribution” utterable again by mainstream economists is already a considerable achievement. Having offered an unignorable account of the history of inequality in capitalist democracies, Piketty believes he has identified a Band-Aid of sufficient swath—a European tax on wealth and a parliamentary chamber charged with regulating finance in the euro zone—to cover Europe’s wounds. But however promising the proposal, the political problem of how to make such a remedy appear as a genuine option for European politicians remains.
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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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Bertrand Russell once described a chicken that is fed by a farmer every day. If other animals on the farm were to whisper warnings to the chicken about its imminent death, the chicken would scarcely listen: all its evidence suggests the farmer wants to keep it alive. And yet, said Russell, “the man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”
The fable is meant to warn us against making facile predictions, but it can also help us to refine our assumptions about the future. What the chicken failed to realize was that there were conditions that guided the farmer’s actions: he would have an interest in feeding the chicken only so long as it was too lean for the market. If we want to venture a guess about the future of democracy, we have to ask: In what respect has the past stability and tenability of the democratic project depended on factors that no longer obtain?
There are a number of striking constants that have held true about representative liberal politics from the founding of the American Republic in 1776 until today. During much of that time, except maybe for a short blip in 1941, a liberal democracy in some form tended to be the most powerful nation in the world. And during much of that time, with the exception of a very short period in the 1930s, the average citizens of a democracy could boast of a much greater standard of living than their parents had.
Neither of these is still the case. Consider, first, the course of world power since the Napoleonic implosion. By the time the British Empire began to falter and the United States inherited its mantle, the supremacy of liberal democracy seemed unassailably secure. As a result, for more than two hundred years and with only a few breaks, we have lived in a world in which one bourgeois democracy or another has been the leading power. Except for brief episodes of peril, democracies around the world have not often had to consider that the confidence their citizens place in their form of government may rely on the sheer power of their states. But it’s not hard to grasp that power both lends prestige and guarantees the absence of destabilizing humiliations. Military defeat has brought not only countless dictatorships, but also numerous democracies—the Spanish Republic being only the most dramatic example—to a premature end.
It’s indicative of the importance and stabilizing nature of power that the United States experienced a sharp democratic disillusionment at the exact moment that it failed to impose a simulacrum of its political system on a Third World country one-thirtieth its size. But for all the embarrassment that the Vietnam War caused Washington, it was hardly as severe a humiliation as most nation-states have weathered at the low points of their history: no American territory was lost, no reparations were paid, US world leadership remained intact. In retrospect, the Vietnam War looks less like a democratic reckoning than a reckless extravagance. If the future should hold more sobering humiliations for America, it may also spell more serious trouble for America’s still-intact democratic ideology.
The economy is another factor that may have been a necessary precondition for the stability of liberal democracy. For the past 250 years—the period in which nations professing to be democracies have sprung up across the world—economic growth has been both astonishing and astonishingly continuous. Booms were followed by busts, but however severe, the busts have only lasted a few years. Since the founding of the United States, most generations have experienced a much more comfortable life than the previous one. But no more. As Piketty and other economists have established, while the economy as a whole has kept growing, the share of it enjoyed by average citizens has rapidly diminished. As a result, the median income of Americans is below what it was twenty-five years ago. This is hardly just a matter of income. Along with falls in absolute levels of remuneration, working Americans have had to live with more economic insecurity—from quickly rising levels of personal debt to the lethal cost of healthcare.
Economic predictions are rarely more trustworthy than phrenological readings, but there are good reasons to believe that the stagnation of average living standards is here to stay for some time. Opposition to redistributive mechanisms such as high taxes, and salary guarantors such as union contracts, has sharpened through the crisis. Meanwhile, the competition for jobs among unskilled and semi-skilled workers has only intensified as the world economy grows ever more integrated, and as the skill and productivity levels of workers from China to Azerbaijan keep improving. There is no telling whether some new set of technologies, or perhaps even an unexpected global renaissance of the political left, may rescue us from more decades of stagnating wages. But to count on that prospect is wishful thinking. For now, all signs point to the possibility that, for the first time in the history of modern democracy, our political system may have to survive in an era of prolonged economic stasis.
To make matters worse, the decline of American political power in the world and the decline of American living standards are not only happening at the same time but feeding off each other. Liberal internationalists are too sanguine when they suggest that the world governance architecture designed by the United States at the end of World War II will remain largely the same in a world no longer dominated by liberal democracies. At the moment, the rules of free trade are expressly tailored to US interests. The industries in which America is strong, or for which American consumers have a particularly urgent demand, get to engage in free trade; others, like agriculture, continue to profit from substantial protectionism. If the leaders of “emerging markets” ever manage to consolidate their interests and shape a more equitable trade regime, the generational decline in living standards in the United States could accelerate. And a rewriting of the rules of free trade is far from the most catastrophic scenario that might be imagined. What if the United States is outmatched in military spending, limiting its power projection to a portion of the Western Hemisphere? Or what if a major trade dispute between China and the United States leads to the effective dismantling of the World Trade Organization, prompting protective barriers to shoot up all across the world and global trade to slow abruptly?
A reading of history cannot tell us what will happen or what should be done. But it can provide an understanding of what is truly new about our situation. The best we can do, then, is to develop a historically based imagination of what unprecedented crises democracy might face, what effect these may have, and how our democracies can hope to confront them.
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Tocqueville remarked somewhere that democracy is a faith-based regime that holds its grip as long as people believe in it. He forgot to say what happens when they stop. For much of the twentieth century, people kept the faith; democratic politics may have been frenzied and inept, but it was generally thought to be on the right path. By the century’s end, academics outdid each other in dusting off old tributes to democracy and composing new ones: democracies would never go to war against one another; democracies would never have a famine; democracies would always muddle through. The list of what they had already overcome was considerable. In the nineteenth century, democracies succeeded in convincing large segments of the population in Europe to forgo allegiance to the old regime in favor of an experiment some thought quixotic. In the twentieth century, a liberal form of democracy defeated one major rival claimant of the term “democracy,” fascism, and fought a successful war of attrition against another, communism. In the postwar decades, India proved its form of democracy could survive, if not thrive, amid extreme poverty, while the United States showed it could at least minimally enfranchise politically, if not economically, an underclass long barred from full participation in the polity.
Victories of this sort were not preordained; many are incomplete and demand more action. But the crisis of democracy today is of a different order: it is no longer a question of soi-disant “democracies” fulfilling their promise, defeating external competitors or melding with new cultures, but whether they can keep the myth intact and survive the growing indifference, distrust and vitriol of their own populations. Our globalized world of nation-states, bound together by capital, may simply no longer be hospitable to the democratic outpourings that gave rise to it.
One of the reasons the democratic ideology was so attractive amid the rapid decline of the institutional religions of Europe was that it allowed people to transfer their faith in a God or monarch to the people. In the United States, the ties between religion and nationalism are even stronger. From the nine unelected lawyers who interpret the Holy Writ of the Constitution, to the widespread implacable belief in American exceptionalism, the country’s real religious motto has been “In the People We Trust.” Yet this almost unalloyed faith in providential democracy, while potent, is also the most difficult to recover once believers start to have their doubts. Tocqueville and Whitman described the dawn of democratic ideology and found its traces in everything from the everyday manners, gestures and conversations of the people to their deepest feelings. But if the culture of democracy is further eroded, a whole climate of feeling, experience and thought risks extinction, and an old climate of naturalized superiority and feudal deference risks returning. “Democracy” as we know it will itself become an ancien régime. Like the pagan gods of Rome, it may command a residual respect. Yet not much more than the name will remain.
One of the ironies of the history of democracy is that its label has spread even as its meaning has become uncertain. As recently as the nineteenth century, countries we now call bourgeois democracies—the United States and the United Kingdom—had serious debates about whether democracy was desirable or feasible. Today, if asked to name the best type of government, an overwhelming majority of Americans would say, unsurprisingly, “democracy.” But so would the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Everyone now carries a torch for the democratic myth. From Joseph Kony’s United Democratic Christian Army to Isaias Afewerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice—the only legal party in Eritrea—we can count on everyone to slip “democratic” into political self-descriptions. At no point in human history have so many people in the world worshipped the same word, yet shared so little political vision. One thing is all but certain: twenty, fifty, 100 years from now, most countries in the world will still be calling themselves “democracies.” But what those polities will actually look like we cannot know. How much longer can we continue to insist that some idealized regime called “democracy” is the best political system of all, and that our noxious political reality conforms to that ideal, when both claims are so evidently spurious?
In the beginning of the modern era, there was a blood-soaked compromise between the House of Commons and an imported monarch, to which we have retrospectively affixed the flattering word “democracy.” More than three centuries later, we are still just barely able to supply the word with content. Our current institutions could be replaced with a political form more suited to planetary constraints and more in line with our desired outcomes, which might include a more genuine commitment to political and economic equality. But it is more likely that they are gradually being replaced by something much worse.
If the end does come, or even if it already has, the death of “democracy” will not be announced. To justify an irrational, dysfunctional politics, future generations of rulers—much like the present ones—will invoke the aura of democracy long after whatever substance it once contained has been lost.