Some people sniff the air and smell an alarmingly foul whiff of the 1930s. The rise of demagogues and “strongmen”; the resurgence of authoritarianism, nationalisms and fundamentalisms; the denigration of expertise and the celebration of ignorance; scorn for consensus-builders and pragmatic compromise; the polarisation of politics towards venom-spitting extremes. Haven’t we seen this horror movie before?
No, argues David Runciman in this scintillating treatise about representative democracy and its contemporary discontents. Donald Trump is “an old man with the political personality of a child”, but he is not “a proto-Hitler”. We are not reliving the first half of the 20th century in Europe. Vladimir Putin presides over a “parody democracy” in Russia, but he is not Stalin. Some of the symptoms of democratic decay may seem familiar, but the disease is different. We make a potentially fatal mistake if we think that history is just repeating itself. Gaze obsessively into the rear-view mirror and we won’t see the true threats on the road ahead.
He is right to register “widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics”. Some of the sources that he identifies will be familiar to readers of the burgeoning literature on the malaise afflicting the more mature democracies. Voter confidence has been sapped by governments that struggle to deliver the underlying contract to spread prosperity sufficiently widely and fairly that everyone has the sense of a stake in society. It is not surprising that many Americans were discontented enough to choose the wild ride of Trump when you consider that the average real wage in the United States has been stagnant for the past 40 years. The internet, far from being the elixir of democratic accountability and engagement that utopians once imagined, has poisoned the well. Opposed sects promote conspiracy theories in their rival echo bubbles rather than engage in reasoned debate around an agreed set of facts. Democracy has become more venomous – and at the same time more toothless. Governments flounder in the face of the disruption unleashed by the tech titans of Silicon Valley and subverters tilling the troll farms run out of the Kremlin. Short-termist politicians are inadequate to the task of tackling existential threats to humanity, such as climate change, because thinking about the end of the world “is too much for democracy to cope with”.
Runciman is gloomy because one of his key contentions is that representative government has lost the capacity to reinvigorate itself. In the opening decades of the 20th century, support for democracy was widened by extensions to the franchise and the foundation of welfare states. He offers the provocative thought that democracy also thrived – even depended upon – “chaos and violence” because they “bring the best out in it”. The second world war demonstrated the benefits of democracy when confronted by nazism. The cold war – this is my suggestion,…