David Runciman believes that democracy's great strength is its adaptability, but autocracies can prove equally flexibleby Ferdinand Mount / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
An American political cartoon (1899) showing the Earth brushing away Monarchy to make way for democratically elected government
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman (Princeton, £19.95)
“If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined,” said Sir John Sinclair in 1777. He had brought the news of General Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga to his hero Adam Smith. Sinclair was a humourless beanpole of a man, an obsessive statistician who wrote wagonloads of pamphlets on every subject imaginable, the very archetype of an intellectual of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was 23 years old and distraught. Smith was 54 and magnificently unmoved by the news, replying with the immortal putdown, “Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
Smith was right, as he was right about most things. The war in America staggered on for another four years until the surrender at Yorktown. Lord North staggered on as Prime Minister too, until he was eventually chucked out on a vote of no confidence, the first Prime Minister to suffer this fate. Even then, he bobbed up again as Home Secretary the following year in a new coalition government. In a democracy, even an imperfect one like late-18th century Britain, failure is seldom fatal for long.
David Runciman takes a rather later starting point for his beguiling new book, which manages to be both skittish and profound. He begins with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he presents, I think convincingly, as the first man to understand what democracy was really like. The French aristocrat certainly was the first observer to explain the hidden strengths of the United States, which others had denounced as a vulgar and mediocre society. But what he had to say applies just as well to any modern democracy.
What Tocqueville understood was that “the great privilege of the Americans is the ability to make repairable mistakes.” Disastrous policies in a democracy are not a lasting calamity because they do not become entrenched. Democracies live from moment to moment. They are open ended, and not to be pinned down. Walter Lippmann argued that the proposed Article X of the League of Nations Charter, which bound the League’s members to defend any other member against external aggression, was…