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…