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.

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Runciman focuses on seven episodes from the past 100 years when American and European democracy was sorely tested. He begins in 1918, when the Allies’ unexpected victory left them unprepared to implement Woodrow Wilson’s visionary plan of peace for the postwar world. Then he jumps to 1933, and the failure of the World Economic Conference in London to address the international causes of the Great Depression. Thereafter he touches down in 1947, as the Cold War began and Americans debated how to respond to Soviet advances in Eastern Europe; 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world with nuclear conflagration; 1974, when the US debacle in Vietnam and the persistence of stagflation created a transatlantic sense of futility; 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and history ended, according to Francis Fukuyama; and lastly in 2008, with the failure of Lehman Brothers leading to a pause in speculative mania and to long-term unemployment for millions. In every case, Runciman argues, democracy demonstrated its tendency to drift into danger and its capacity to improvise pragmatic responses that allowed it, eventually, to drift some more. This is the confidence trap, and the pattern seems clear: disaster is repeatedly if inadvertently averted.

These are ambitious claims, and Runciman asserts them vigorously. His style is confident and conversational, peppered with witty asides and sharp perceptions. Recalling an honorable tradition in social thought, Runciman orchestrates an interpretation based on two ideal types, democracy and autocracy. Democracy is the name for “any society with regular elections, a relatively free press, and open competition for power.” This contrasts with autocracy, which exists in “any society in which leaders do not face open elections and the free flow of information is subject to political control.” So far, so good—one can quarrel with the presence of no more than two alternative polities, but one has to begin somewhere. The problems begin when ideal types are transformed into historical actors.

Throughout The Confidence Trap, democracy takes chances, makes mistakes, gets things wrong or right and somehow muddles through. Not everyone will be troubled by this trope. The attribution of will and choice to abstractions is a time-honored literary device: good enough for Tocqueville, good enough for us. It is also a practice more common among political theorists than among historians, so my frustrations with Runciman’s argument may be rooted in my own disciplinary predilections.

Still, there are times when Runciman’s method limits historical understanding by obscuring the motives and responsibility of particular persons. I am reminded of what passed for penetrating marginalia in my graduate school days: my classmates and I would write “Who has power?” in the margins of books whose characters were abstractions like Society, Technology and the National Mood. I found myself posing the same question in the margins of Runciman’s book, along with another: “Who benefits?”

The problem is not that there are no people in The Confidence Trap: the book is full of fascinating characters and anecdotal detours. But the relationship between individuals and the larger polity is occasionally left unclear. “Democracies might benefit when individuals take chances and make mistakes, since this is the best way to keep politics open to new ideas,” Runciman writes. “But when whole democracies take chances and make mistakes, individuals are the ones to suffer.” It is hard to know what the phrase “whole democracies” refers to, unless it is the governments empowered to “take chances” in democracy’s name. Runciman’s ideal type of democracy tends to be socially diffuse, cutting across national boundaries and class divisions, the governors and the governed. He pays little attention to the role of concentrated wealth and power in creating structural constraints on the exercise of democracy. He assumes majority rule to be a continuing fait accompli and the influence of public opinion on policy to be direct and unproblematic.

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The argument that flows from these assumptions is intriguing and frequently insightful, but at certain key points it is indifferent to counterevidence. This is especially true in the realm of foreign affairs, the least democratic aspect of public policy—no American war has been debated and declared by Congress since 1942—and also the one most susceptible to exceptionalist beliefs. As Tocqueville understood, the faith in democratic providence was peculiarly American; no other nation (not even France) has ever been quite as convinced of its unique, divinely ordained destiny to promote democracy throughout the world. Democracy was the excuse for foreign military intervention, the driving force (along with less exalted motives) of millennial nationalism. A focus on ideal types screens out important particulars that make democratic societies different in different places.

Runciman’s historical interpretations range from thoughtful reflections on the origins of the Cold War to a misinformed account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The recurring motif is anticlimax. What looks to be a utopian transformation or an impending catastrophe turns out to be less transformative or catastrophic than anyone had hoped or feared. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson overreached, dreaming of world comity but discovering that democracies (including his own) were unready for it. In 1933, the World Economic Conference in London dithered in the face of disaster, but the democracies (except for Germany) managed to preserve the confidence of their citizenry. In 1947, the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe provoked Winston Churchill and Harry Truman to apocalyptic fervor, but George Kennan and Walter Lippmann steered democracy toward the more reasonable strategy of containment; meanwhile, the emergence of postwar democracies in Japan, India, Israel, Germany, France and Italy showed evidence of democracy’s adaptability to various conditions. Heroic aspiration was not on the agenda; democracy’s chief strength was its capacity to function as an “improvised, inadvertent form of politics,” Runciman writes.

This case is ably and persuasively argued, but when he claims that the Cuban Missile Crisis was also “a victory for democratic inadvertence,” the argument comes unhinged from evidence. Runciman begins his account of the missile crisis by quoting the political philosopher Louis Halle, who wrote that in 1962 that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was experiencing “a new kind of weakness…the weakness of the superior power that, in spite of its superiority, cannot afford to risk the test of force.” Halle’s notion that the USSR was “the superior power” in 1962 was quite mistaken; it was apparently based on the false claim made by the Kennedy campaign in 1960 that the United States needed to close a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. In fact, the United States had about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the USSR.

The difficulties in this account arise from theoretical assumptions as well as factual inaccuracies. Citing another theorist of that era, Thomas Schelling, Runciman says, “In games of chicken—where the loser is the one who blinks first—the rational strategy is to behave irrationally, so as to convince your opponent you are incapable of recognizing when it’s time to blink.” From the outset, then, we know that Runciman’s version of the Cuban Missile Crisis will unfold in the universe of Grand Strategy, where potentially cataclysmic confrontation is a game of chicken, the appearance of strength is more important than the facts on the ground, and nuclear war is a war like any other.

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Runciman describes Khrushchev’s decision to put missiles in Cuba as an act of “Soviet aggression” to which Kennedy had to respond forcefully. The president did just that, confronting the Soviets in a nationally televised address with satellite photos of the missiles, demanding their withdrawal and instituting a naval blockade of the island. Lippmann called JFK’s televisual strategy naïve and reckless, but Runciman thinks it was shrewd. “Kennedy understood that untutored public opinion was one of his weapons in that negotiation; it signaled to the Soviets that he could not afford to back down.” Indeed, Runciman notes, public opinion was constantly on the Kennedy brothers’ minds during this crisis. Robert told the Russian ambassador that he could only accept Khrushchev’s proposal—for the United States to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet missiles’ removal from Cuba—“if it wasn’t seen as a trade, since democratic public opinion wouldn’t stand for it. Khrushchev had to be seen to act first, no conditions attached, which is what he did. Five months later, Kennedy withdrew the weapons from Turkey.” This was a triumph for democratic inadvertence, Runciman concludes, yet it was no cause for celebration. “American democracy had avoided catastrophe only by coming right up to the brink…. It had been taken by surprise, felt itself outraged, shut its eyes to the risks, held its breath, and survived. It had lived in the moment.” As for the immediate political consequences, the Democratic Party did better than it might have expected before the crisis, but not as well as it might have hoped, given that JFK “had just saved the world” from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

This account is troubling for both conceptual and empirical reasons. Abstractions like democracy and public opinion are Runciman’s main characters, yet during the crisis it was men who only could have guessed (assuming they cared) what the majority wanted who were making all the decisions—in secret. If public opinion really did want Kennedy to refuse to “back down,” there could never be a stronger case for ignoring public opinion. Nor was this an exercise in game theory, a test to see who blinked first. Nuclear war was not—and is not—a war like any other. As one of my undergraduate mentors, the historian William Harbaugh, used to ask: “What circumstances give a president the authority to put the world under the shadow of nuclear war?” And his answer was always the same: none.

Still, in this case, the circumstances themselves also deserve close attention. The standard account of the crisis that Runciman reprises, with Kennedy facing down “Soviet aggression,” has been dismantled by Sheldon Stern and other historians whose work has drawn on the so-called ExComm tapes—recordings of Kennedy’s meetings with the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. As recent scholarship makes clear, Khrushchev was responding to a series of provocations by Kennedy: the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, a massive US military buildup designed to close a nonexistent missile gap, and the installation of Jupiter missiles in Turkey, near the Soviet border. The Jupiter missiles were immobile, aboveground, and required a long preparation to launch. Naturally they looked like first-strike weapons to the Soviets. And indeed the Kennedy administration had considered the first-strike option during the Berlin crisis of 1961. No wonder Khrushchev thought that putting missiles in Cuba would just be giving the Americans “a little of their own medicine” (as he later told the American journalist Strobe Talbott), not to mention deterring future US attempts to topple the Castro regime—which he had every reason to expect.

Yet at the same time both the Soviets and the Americans knew that the Cuban missiles in no way altered the strategic balance. Long-range missiles, whether fired from underground silos in Ukraine or from submarines at sea, were just as lethal as mid-range missiles fired from Cuba. The real problem the missiles posed was not strategic but political. And it was a problem of Kennedy’s own making—not a consequence of “the irrational intransigence of democratic opinion,” as Runciman says. Kennedy had made toughness on the Soviet Union a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and the failure of his invasion of Cuba only intensified his obsession with unseating Castro. When Russian missiles appeared in Cuba, JFK ignored the possibilities of diplomacy and instead publicly confronted the Soviets. This was an extraordinarily provocative—and unnecessary—raising of the stakes. In the end, Kennedy partially redeemed himself by accepting Khrushchev’s peace proposal, resisting his own more hawkish advisers’ calls for another invasion. But the fundamental fact remains: democracy did not put the world in the shadow of nuclear war; Kennedy did. People, not abstractions, make policy.

After the near miss of nuclear war became just another successfully managed crisis, Runciman writes, American democracy continued to drift—periodically enveloped by a sense of emergency, learning nothing from the crises of the past. I would say worse than nothing: the Cuban Missile Crisis taught, if anything, the wrong lesson, that toughness gets results, while the US defeat in Vietnam produced only “bitterness, confusion, and a desire to forget,” in Runciman’s words. Other democracies were more willing to acknowledge failure. India, blindsided by the Chinese seizure of disputed territory in 1962, quickly acknowledged the blunder and sought aid from Western Europe, the United States and even Israel. Runciman concludes from this conduct that “democracies are not proud when it comes to facing up to their mistakes, largely because they make so many of them. They tend to be pragmatic.” This may be true for countries that have not drunk too deeply from the springs of messianic nationalism, but for “the indispensable nation”—as Madeleine Albright called the United States—admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness. That’s because the American tradition, especially in foreign policy, is deeply anti-pragmatic—Protestant Christianity, secularized into providentialist zeal. Its chief rhetorical form is the jeremiad, wherein the speaker laments moral decline and rallies his audience to rebuild a righteous community. Drift, in the eschatology of the jeremiad, is a form of slackness.

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The rhetoric of the jeremiad shaped journalists’ response to the events of 1974, a moment characterized by a “pervasive sense of drift” that created a “crisis of democracy,” according to James Reston of The New York Times. Democratic leaders, among them Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt, were resigning under clouds of scandal; the American war in Vietnam was grinding to a humiliating halt; and the prosperity of the postwar era was disappearing in the swamp of stagflation. In Runciman’s view, politicians did not have the courage to stand up to the public’s demands for social security and a continually rising standard of living, to impose the fiscal discipline that was needed to fight inflation and get the country moving again. Yet “the feeling of impending disaster proved an asset, because it enabled the democracies to let off steam. Nonetheless, it meant that they did not really know what they were doing.” Still, they managed to stumble into a solution to stagflation—putting the central bankers in charge, allowing the interest and unemployment rates to rise. Later, Reagan and Thatcher would tighten the screws. From Runciman’s vantage, austerity would breed prosperity, which was just around the corner. “The outward failures of the 1970s turned out to be a success story for democracy,” he writes. “The success became fully visible in the triumph of 1989.” In this view, the shift toward neoliberal consensus occurred in a fit of absence of mind. Politicians backed into a resurgent laissez-faire orthodoxy through a series of ad hoc adjustments to policy. They did not really know what they were doing.

This account of the emergence of neoliberalism is illuminating in many ways. It captures the bafflement of policy-makers whose familiar Keynesian solutions suddenly seemed inadequate to the task at hand. The feeling of futility seemed to disable leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the turn toward neoliberalism was not simply a stumble on to the right policy solutions. It was part of a broad ideological shift promoted by people with powerful institutions at their disposal. It can be traced to (among other things) the Powell memorandum, which future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell sent to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971. Powell urged an ideological counterattack against the alleged enemies of capitalism in universities and the media; in effect, he envisioned the creation of a respectable right-wing political culture—Fox News, The Washington Times, the Heritage Foundation and the like. The success of this counteroffensive has been stunning and anything but ad hoc. Powerful groups have worked systematically to shift the fulcrum of debate rightward. These developments are at least as important as “excessive wage demands” in explaining the fragmentation of the mid-century Keynesian consensus.

With the collapse of communism in 1989, Runciman finds another anticlimax—one rooted in the contrast between disillusionment and hope. Marxist-Leninist societies had to deliver on their utopian promises and could not; liberal democracy did not have to deliver anything, but simply retain its promise as something that still made sense to believe in. Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of the end of history (apart from its other obvious absurdities) failed to recognize that the strength of democracy is precisely that it doesn’t need an “end”—“it doesn’t foreclose the future. That is how it survives the vagaries of history,” says Runciman. Fukuyama, like Nietzsche and Allen Bloom, was haunted by the specter of banal self-satisfaction that he believed would envelop society after external challenges to democracy had disappeared. Yet Fukuyama ignored, in Runciman’s view, “the restless quality of all democratic societies, including the most comfortable ones.” Here, as in Tocqueville, “restlessness” is a stand-in for entrepreneurial ambition.

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When democracies lose their restlessness, they lose their edge, Runciman believes, as the Japanese did in the 1990s. Their attachment to security and stability prevented their embrace of neoliberal “reforms”—a move India made more successfully, though by government fiat rather than popular vote, as Runciman acknowledges. Maybe ordinary Indians weren’t as entrepreneurial as their rulers (or the International Monetary Fund) thought they should be. Maybe, in contemporary democracies, top-down decisions are more important than the will of the people. These are the kind of possibilities that undermine the explanatory power of democracy tout court, unmoored from political economy or power relations.

When he turns to the crash of 2008, Runciman assumes that if politicians had braved the wrath of the voters and chosen “the drastic measures needed to stave off disaster,” the disaster could have been averted. By his reckoning, “drastic measures” do not apparently include the prosecution of securities fraud or the restoration of the barrier between commercial and investment banking, but they do involve the stabilization of budget deficits. Unfortunately, Runciman notes, “the insistent demands of the public” overrode “the moderating influence of the experts,” and fiscal discipline was forgotten. Still, in his view, the crash and the response to it reveal the familiar pattern: democracies paring down pending catastrophe into manageable proportions, postponing the evil day of reckoning forever, if they can. Improvisational to the core, “democracies are always trying something new,” Runciman claims. Surveying the current political wasteland, littered with stale technocratic slogans, one wonders what he has in mind.

We had better hope it is something truly new, because familiar formulas fail to address the four challenges to democracy that Runciman cites in conclusion: “war, finance, environmental threat, and the existence of a plausible rival.” He does not seem unduly concerned that concentrated wealth on Wall Street or in the energy industry might create obstacles to problem-solving in financial or environmental policy. Nor does he acknowledge how the rise of the national security state, complemented by surveillance technology, has negated democracy by transforming warmaking into a secret enterprise planned and largely conducted by experts. Democracy has little or nothing to do with contemporary war, certainly not the kind remotely controlled by democracies. As for surveillance, Runciman acknowledges that “democracies have access to multiple new sources of information,” but that “they just don’t know what to do with it all.” To whom does “they” refer? The CIA? The NSA? Certainly not to any institution that could plausibly be called democratic.

Finally, there is the question of rivals to democracy, the chief contemporary one being autocratic China, in Runciman’s view. China can respond to crisis more quickly than democracies because its government is not hamstrung by the need to please public opinion, he thinks; but like other autocracies it has less capacity than democracy to own up to mistakes and change course when required. There are other potential rivals, including the hybrid regimes that have proliferated in the wake of communism’s collapse. The most prominent is Russia, which, Runciman says, has “turned into a pseudo-democratic kleptocracy, in which people use money to get power and power to get money.” This may be true, but this same language could be used to describe much of public life in the contemporary United States, especially in light of recent Supreme Court rulings—most notoriously Citizens United—equating money and free speech.

The ambiguity of the distinction between democratic and pseudo-democratic governments suggests the largest problem with Runciman’s explanatory scheme—its tendency to neglect contradictory evidence. The Confidence Trap creates a smoothly functional interpretive apparatus, perfectly suited to exposing the recurring pattern of crisis, drift and renewed crisis. This in itself is an important achievement. But it remains a partial one. Too often, the particularities of place and power slip out the side door, into the dark. We need to bring them to light if we want to restore full meaning to the battered word “democracy.”