The word “democracy” has been bruised and beaten during the last few centuries. It has been pressed into the service of dictators and demagogues, of dewy-eyed imperialists and utopian prophets of consumer sovereignty. It has been routinely used to endow power grabs with an aura of righteousness and to recast the pursuit of particular economic interests as a defense of universal principles. After all the ill use, there are gray moments when democracy seems to be more of a phantom than a foundation.
David Runciman is not discouraged. In The Confidence Trap, he returns to the project pioneered by Alexis de Tocqueville: to take democracy seriously as a description of actual societies rather than a mere slogan. Apart from a few such outliers as India and Japan, the societies in question are nearly all in Western Europe and North America, with the United States getting the most attention and standing in, much of the time, for democracy in general.
In Runciman’s view, democratic societies seem to lurch from one crisis to another, without ever thoroughly addressing the problems that caused them, but also without ever (well, hardly ever) collapsing altogether. The explanation for this pattern, he decides, depends on Tocqueville’s insight that faith is “the lynchpin of American democracy”—faith in the survival and ultimate triumph of democracy, everywhere. The belief that democracy was part of “the providential plan of the universe” could lead to a supreme confidence in its capacity to withstand challenges. But confidence could become a trap, by encouraging complacency and ultimately a kind of fatalism. And fatalism in turn could foster recklessness as well as resignation, because, as Runciman argues, “one way of trusting to the future is to act as though it is already here and jump right in.” Democratic fatalism fostered restless energy—the “superabundant force” that Tocqueville sensed throughout the American “social body”—but it could also slide into stagnation.
What was true in Tocqueville’s time remains so today, from Runciman’s view. American democracy, like democracy in general, has been fated to drift from one crisis to another, because democratic crises are never moments of truth. “They are moments of deep confusion and uncertainty. Nothing is revealed,” he writes, and yet democracy continues to adapt to the challenges history poses to it. Indeed, adaptability, Runciman concludes, is democracy’s fundamental strength, and the main reason it survives crises that bring down more autocratic regimes.
This is a variation on the argument Walter Lippmann made in Drift and Mastery (1914), which Runciman calls Mastery and Drift. The inversion is revealing. Runciman and Lippmann both assume that democracies are always moving somewhere, if only on the currents of change. Both ask whether democracies should simply float on those currents, or navigate them to their own ends—and if so, how and when? Lippmann’s book was a rallying cry to his fellow Progressives to turn drift into mastery, to bend government to benign purposes and promote ”a life that shall really be interesting” for the untutored masses. Runciman’s book, written a century later after decades of denigration of government, takes a more chastened view of state power. Much of the time, he suggests, we are better off letting mastery yield to drift. In many ways this view is more humane and less manipulative than the young Lippmann’s faith in managerial expertise. (Lippmann would become more skeptical of government planning, and in the latter pages of The Confidence Trap Runciman invokes his warnings to American presidents against grandiose overreaching.) But while Runciman deepens Lippmann’s dismissive view of popular rule, he sometimes dilutes his predecessor’s strong sense of the unequal power relations between the governors and the governed—even in a society that calls itself a democracy. In consequence, The Confidence Trap tends to float above the messy details of social conflict. Its argument, though fresh and interesting, neglects a central theme in twentieth-century political history—the growing insulation of government from popular control or even influence. Its conclusion is more hopeful about the future of democracy than the evidence warrants.