David Runciman is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. His latest book is “The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present“. In it, Runciman tells two stories about the past hundred years of democracy simultaneously: a political story of success and an intellectual story of crisis and failure (or at least of the permanent possibility of failure). He argues that there is a crisis of democracy today, but not for the reasons normally given. “The real problem,” Runciman writes, “is that democracy is trapped by the nature of its own success.” This is what he calls the “democratic condition”: ” success and failure go hand in hand.”
Runciman’s account of this condition is developed through the examination of seven crises of democracy during the past century: 1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989 and 2008. The book begins, however, with an analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work “Democracy in America”, the first volume of which was published in 1835 (Tocqueville had travelled to America from France in 1831). When I spoke to Runciman earlier this week, I began asking him about the extent to which his analysis of the “confidence trap”, which he thinks will ensnare any democracy sooner or later, is shaped by his reading of Tocqueville.
DR: I started out on a project in which I just wanted to explore my own puzzlement at the thought that democracy was both so successful and yet seemed to be so ill-equipped for the 21st century. I thought I would research a series of crises and try to see if I could link the political story and the intellectual story. It was about half-way through, when I was thinking about how those stories link up, that I went back to Tocqueville and found in him what I thought was the most persuasive psychological, as well as historical, analysis of why democracies get in this kind of bind.
JD: Tocqueville has a name for that psychological predicament doesn’t he? He calls it “fatalism”.
What I find so interesting about Tocqueville is that he saw the two sides of democratic fatalism. Normally, people think of fatalism as passive, pessimistic and gloomy. But when he went to America, Tocqueville was struck by a society in which there was this tendency to drift and to assume that politics will work itself out in the end that went along with this frenetic, impatient, sometimes very jittery kind of politics in which people are fearful and also often anxious for the good news to arrive quicker than it does. You see that in all successful democracies. And Tocqueville has an explanation for it comes out like that: in a democracy politics always looks pretty bad, because democracies are chaotic and clumsy and contentious, but in the long run they tend to produce benefits. So if you live in a system like that, you can take the long view and think it’ll all turn out right in the end, but as people engage with the short-term failings they can be extremely jittery and impatient for the good news to arrive, but it never arrives in time. You’re told that democracy in the long run will be good for you, but democracies operate in the short run.
And “in the long-run we are all dead” …
Well, there’s that too. It depends what you mean by the long run. People look at modern democracy and say it hasn’t been going for very long yet.
You show that there’s a connection in Tocqueville—and this connection then plays itself out in the successive crises you go on to describe—between fatalism and progress. So fatalism, in the positive sense he describes, involves, as you put it, an acknowledgment of one’s “privileged position in the grand scheme of things”. In other words, it entails the assumption that the rise of democracy is ineluctable.
When Tocqueville is thinking about this stuff, he goes to America, which at that point was the world’s only recognised democracy. And he predicts, famously and correctly, that this is the wave of the future and that one of the reasons that American politics is much better and much stronger than it looks is that Americans have bought into this belief. They have faith in it. He understood that democracy is fuelled by faith—faith in the future and progress, which is one of the things that allows people to withstand the short-term shocks and unpleasantness of democracy. There is an underlying sense that history is on democracy’s side. But then he himself, in the space of just a few years, became increasingly pessimistic about what effects that might have on a society like America. He feared that societies that have this faith in democracy don’t tackle the problems that need to be tackled in a timely way. They have an underlying belief that this thing will sort itself out, but they can drift into disaster. In the mid-19th century, the disaster was the American Civil War. Tocqueville didn’t exactly see it coming, but after he published Democracy In America he became much gloomier about American democracy—he thought it had got stuck in a childish belief in the future which meant that it never faced up to its own shortcomings.
Is there something distinctive about America in that faith in the progress of democracy takes a particularly acute form there? America develops its own national story about it—“manifest destiny” and the rest of it.
Certainly the American case is a heightened version of this. But one of the themes of the book is that it is not entirely exceptional. I hint in the book that contemporary Indian democracy has some echoes of 19th-century American democracy, both in its restlessness and short-term failings, but also in the ways in which the Indian people have bought in to the story of Indian democracy and its destiny. You see similar versions, as I show in the book, in postwar European democracy. It’s nothing like the American manifest destiny story, but as it becomes a successful and entrenched system of government and people acquire confidence in it, they also drift into a series of crises because they don’t respond in a timely manner to the failings.
There is a sense, isn’t there, in which all democracies develop their own local idioms for handling the paradox of fatalism? For example, in his correspondence with John-Stuart Mill over the prospect of Britain and France going to war over Sudan, which you discuss in the book, Tocqueville says that democracies shouldn’t too readily sacrifice what he calls “grandeur” to repose. And of course the rhetoric of “grandeur national” has long been a staple of French statecraft—it’s part of the story France tells itself about its place in the world (not least its place in relation to the United States).
Tocqueville’s interesting in lots of ways, and one of the ways in which he’s interesting is that he’s telling a story about America for a French audience. He’s not warning Americans about the ways they’re going to go wrong; he’s trying to extract lessons from America for France. What so struck me about the Mill-Tocqueville exchange was that they really agreed about most things about democracy and felt it was them against the world—they’d both spotted this impending threat, which wasn’t impending anarchy but democratic stagnation and fatalism. Mill thought the risk of war would be make to early British proto-democracy go wrong. But Tocqueville thought it would wake French democracy up to its potential. These are the two sides of the dilemma. In a crisis, some people fear that the crisis will cause democracy to go off the rails, while other people think this is the moment that will wake it up to its potential. Usually in a crisis, both of them are in play at the same time.
I’d like to ask you about the relationship between democracy and elections. Is it simplistic to say that an election can sometimes bring a crisis of democracy to an end?
In the book I do talk about a few elections, but usually in order to say that these aren’t, on the whole, turning points. They’re more symptoms than the cause of the ways democracies deal with crises. Take the 1979 election here and the 1980 presidential election in the US. These are held to be emblematic elections in which these heroic politicians come along and shake democracies out of their torpor. But the evidence doesn’t really back that up. Crises extend far beyond elections, both before and after them. And the election itself is very rarely the turning point—with one exception, which I talk about in the book, which is Franklin D Roosevelt’s election in 1932. That’s the exception partly because it was at the absolute trough of the crisis. The crisis of the Great Depression had been running for sufficiently long, and had got sufficiently terrifying. One of the striking things about Roosevelt is that having been elected in November 1932, it was five months before he becomes president. And he refuses to say or do anything—he lets it get worse. He uses those five months to reach a point so that when he assumes office he’s in a position to use his power to effect change. That’s a nerveless politics of a kind you rarely see. If you take Obama’s election in 2008, which is often compared to the Thirties, it was nothing like that—it was too early in the crisis and he didn’t have anything like that kind of political courage. In the case of Thatcher in 1979, I think she was more surfing a tide of change that had been running through the 1970s.
But you do say that “in a crisis, elections can be a godsend or a curse”. I was reminded of Rahm Emmanuel’s notorious remark to the effect that one shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste. Was Emmanuel being Tocquevillian when he said that?
A little bit. Though when, in a democracy, you hear people saying things like that it always sounds more Machiavellian than Tocquevillian! Tocqueville’s view about crises was that they were needed to wake democracies up. But he always saw things in double terms, and the thing that could wake democracy up was also likely to trigger its worst features, which are that jittery, impatient, populist panic. The crisis of 2007-8 was a godsend for Obama in helping him get elected—no question. If you track the opinion polls, it was over the weekend that Lehman Brothers went under that he pulled ahead of McCain decisively. Previously, McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate had actually narrowed the gap—people forget that. And then the week after Lehman Brothers went under [it was clear] that Obama was going to win. He probably would’ve won anyway, but it secured him the victory. But it was very early in the cycle of the crisis. It showed the bad side of democratic politics too—the behaviour of American elected representatives in Congress didn’t make anything remotely easy for Obama. It wasn’t as if the whole of the American political system woke up to the crisis and decided it was time to act. It was nothing like a war or anything like that. And he [Obama] has been grappling with it ever since, with the two sides of democracy in crisis—on the one hand, the idea that this is an opportunity, a chance for real legislative and political change, and on the other side the ways that democracies tend to behave in a crisis, which is erratic, short-termist and extremely hard to manage.
One of the claims you make in the book is that the history of democracy in crisis is both cyclical and cumulative. So there’s a sense in which the same patterns reproduce themselves at the different historical conjunctures you discuss. But 1974 is an interesting case, it seems to me, particularly in this country. It was a moment when the sense of crisis was particularly acute, when the prospect of democracy being able to muddle through as it had done in previously crises seemed impossibly remote.
Absolutely. You just have to read newspapers from the time to see the pervasive sense that British democracy wasn’t just struggling, not performing efficiently, it was under serious threat. People did look at Latin America and say that since inflation was destroying democracies across that continent, and that something similar could happen here. There was a sense that the system itself was under threat. You certainly don’t feel that now. Yes, Russell Brand is out there saying the system doesn’t work. But in a sense Russell Brand is a sign of how rare it is for people to question the system itself. There was in the 1970s a real sense that there was a range of forces at work—violence in Northern Ireland, terrorism, inflation, the oil shock, the fact that American leadership seemed to have vanished from the world—and that democracies were turning in on themselves and tearing themselves apart. It was a really serious period of crisis and yet western democracy didn’t just survive that crisis, it quite quickly entered the age of triumphalism. That’s part of the cumulative story. Of the six crises before the current one that I discuss in the book, democracy survives them all. Each time it survives one of these things, the sense builds up that it is relatively indestructible. And that of course is dangerous. The cumulative story, which chimes with Tocqueville’s analysis, is that over time there’s a kind of moral hazard at work here which is that democracies will make bigger and bigger mistakes as the come to think that they’re immune to the consequences of crises.
We’re often told today that there’s something unprecedented about the current crisis of democracy, that levels of disengagement from and dissatisfaction with the democratic process are dangerously and historically high. But if what you’ve just said is true, then the sense that this time it’s different is just part of the familiar and repeatable structure you’re describing.
Yes. There are features of the present crisis—political disengagement, for example—which make it look different. But in the Thirties, again in the Seventies and during the Cold War, the danger was on a completely different scale. In the 1930s there was a widespread feeling that democracy was just going to be a brief accident of history because dictatorship was coming. Disengagement today is a serious problem, but democracies have survived worse. What it might be is symptomatic of a much deeper-rooted problem. Those previous crises were emergency crises in which there was a point when the system galvanised itself—sometimes through luck and sometimes thanks to skilful political leadership. But an extended period of disengagement, disillusionment and cynicism makes it much harder to galvanise the system. Certainly, in the current crisis we’ve not yet had one of those moments when people say, “OK, this has got to stop”. The general election of 2010, for example, seemed to be one of those occasions when the British just say, “We don’t want any of you.” And the next election could be worse. It could be a tie between two parties neither of who have anything close to a popular mandate, and then a discredited Liberal Democrat party again deciding which one it wants to govern with. And it could be considerably more disillusioning. I don’t think it’ll threaten the fabric of democracy but people are going to get more disengaged if that happens—and it might not, of course.
But disengagement and disillusionment are not necessarily the same thing as the complacency which Tocqueville saw as one of the abiding dangers of democracy are they?
They’re not necessarily the same, but might be related to it. There is a sense in which people re-engage when they really think that politics matters. And that sense of disengagement might reflect a certain sense that politics is not the most important thing. When people think that politics is the most important thing it’s often when the crisis has got worse than it has now.
I was particularly intrigued by your chapter on 1989. Calling 1989 a crisis is provocative enough, but then you draw a parallel between 1918 and 1989. In both cases, you say that victory—in the First World War and the Cold War respectively—took the victors by surprise. Is your intention there to undo some of the distorting effects of hindsight and remind us how 1989 actually felt?
Yes. It’s about seeing 1989 from the perspective of the Seventies and Eighties and not from the triumphalist perspective of the Nineties. The chapter on 1974 tries to show just how threatening people found the congruence of events in the Seventies. And from there it’s only 15 years to the great “triumph”. And that’s not long enough for people to adjust. I re-read lots of newspaper commentary from the period and it’s all pretty gloomy in the late 1980s. It’s still instinctively pessimistic, there’s an assumption that the good news won’t last. And then there’s the comparison with 1918. In the First World War, almost until it was won, there was a sense that democracies were not up to the challenge of this kind of war. Then when it’s won there’s this sudden turnaround and a sense that, now we’ve won, we’ve got to take advantage of the moment. In both cases, 1918 and 1989, the thing that allowed democracies to win, which is their capacity to muddle through, is the same thing that’s not going to allow them to seize the moment—because democracies don’t seize the moment; they muddle through. And they muddle through the bad times, which allows them to survive, and they also muddle through the good times, which means that they can’t take advantage of them.
Returning to the crisis of 2008: you describe it as a “failure of democracy”. Could we also describe it as a crisis of Tocquevillian fatalism in the guise of what economists call “irrational exuberance”?
You could put it like that, though it’s a bit of a stretch from Tocqueville to contemporary economic theory! This crisis is about blindspots, it’s about inattention. One of the books I draw on is Animal Spirits by George Akelof and Robert Shiller. These are mainstream economists; they’re not critics of the economics profession by any means. But they are trying to understand the ways in which supposedly efficient systems create binds that prevent people from seeing the threats that are coming, without going as far as those critics who say this is just a fundamental flaw with capitalism. The good news gets inflated; the bad news doesn’t get heard in time; the adjustment is long and painful (and in the adjustment, there are moments of serious panic). That’s true of market crashes and I think it’s also true of democratic crises. When they combine, as they did in a way in 2007-8, it is quite dangerous.
Hubris was also part of it wasn’t it? You discuss Alan Greenspan, who persuaded himself that the “Great Moderation” was permanent.
That’s part of the cumulative story. Was it Ben Bernanke who said that we know what went wrong in the Great Depression and it won’t happen again? It’s sort of true in the sense that the current crash hasn’t turned into a crisis of Great Depression proportions, partly because the technocrats have known some of the fixes. But it’s also true that that knowledge—that they have the fixes up their sleeve—does lead them to be less attentive than they ought to be about threats. It makes people more likely to rely on historical precedent and not think about the ways in which this time is different. One of the things that really surprised me about Alan Greenspan when I read his memoirs was the moment when he talks about the two dramatic things that happened at the beginning of his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve. One was the big crash of 1987, which was as big a crash as the Wall Street Crash of 1929, though the American economy and stock market bounced back very quickly. People forget that at the time of the 1987 crash people were thinking we were on the verge of another 1929-style meltdown. But in a few months people were richer than they were before. I think Greenspan internalised some of that. The other thing dramatic thing he says that happened was that the Berlin Wall came down. And he though, “Oh, democracy has won.” I thought he was meant to be an Ayn Rand sceptic about democracy, but he just bought into the whole package. It’s intellectual hubris—this sense that all the pieces are coming together, we’ve got a hundred years of experience [of democracy] to draw on and we kind of know how it works.
Hubris of that sort is almost a permanent temptation isn’t it? It comes with the territory in democracies.
Absolutely. The core argument I’m trying to make is that the things that produce the benefits of democracy—including that kind of confidence, that faith in the future—also produces the vices of democracy, including hubris and complacency. That was Tocqueville’s basic insight: you can’t have the good of democracy without the bad. Then you may say that the solution to that is some sort of democratic self-awareness where democracies are aware of their own weaknesses. I talk about the various people who’ve tried to theorise that, like Hayek. But it’s really, really hard. It’s like individual human beings, who find it very, very hard, even when they have knowledge of their own weaknesses, to attend to them. And how much harder is it when you’re talking about an entire society?
In your analysis of the aftermath of the crisis of 2008, you examine the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (and I think you’re right to treat them as related phenomena or symptoms). You describe them both as “populist”. Now, that’s a word that has been used almost to excess recently—it’s applied to political movements as diverse as Ukip in this country and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de gauche in France. How much explanatory force do you think the term “populism” has and what are you trying to capture when you use it?
I agree it’s a bit overused and play around with. I heard Nigel Farage give a speech in Cambridge recently in which he said, “People call me a populist. How can I be a populist when I’m not popular!” What I’m trying to capture when I use it are those outbursts of popular disgust when democracy isn’t functioning well. Certainly, in both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street you see this sense that there’s a mismatch between the promise of democracy and the reality, and that this has got to stop. Skilful politicians, of which Farage is one, are good at exploiting this. On the whole, it doesn’t anywhere because the system tends to adjust, adapt and muddle through in ways that dissipate it. I think we’re starting to see that in the United States. The dilemma for both those movements [the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street] was that they needed the crisis to get worse. They almost needed the system to break down in order to assert their purchase on American politics. But the system is sufficiently adaptable that it doesn’t break down. And as the crisis gets worse, the system adapts. It’s got close to breaking down—the government has shut down in America, but that’s not the same as American democracy ceasing to work. As you saw during the government shutdown, there are stabilisers in the system that seem to have stopped the worst from happening. Of course the danger is assuming that the stabilisers will always work.
Right. And at the end of the book you do say that maybe one implication of the cumulative story is that the time for muddling through may have passed.
One hesitates to say that this time it’s different, because history is full of people saying “This time it’s different”. But I try to identify the current threats [to democracy], and some of them are different. Take climate change. There isn’t, I think, a historical analogy to climate change, and one of the issues with climate change is that the time frame is different—it may be that the moment we wake up to it is the moment that the runaway effects are already built into the system. In relation to debt and public finance, I don’t think America is going to go bust, but the way in which American politicians are playing chicken with the system is pretty dangerous. And there is nothing analogous to it. That sort of behaviour didn’t happen in 1933 because people thought the system couldn’t survive their playing chicken with it. So that’s different. It would be a mistake to think that every 15 years democracy gets into a mess and every 40 years it gets into a big mess, and then it comes out the other side. One of them will be the one it doesn’t come out of. I don’t think that this one is it, but it’d be crazy to think some deeper structural change won’t be required relatively soon.
“The Confidence Trap” is published by Princeton University Press (£19.95).