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The Dangers of Democracy

Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos
Children demonstrating in favor of a referendum backing the Good Friday peace agreement, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1998

“For most of us,” writes David Runciman, “democracy is still the only game in town.” A professor of politics at Cambridge who is noted for showing how apparently contradictory propositions can make sense in politics, Runciman argues that democracies survive crises without having any clear insight into how they manage this feat. The experience of overcoming seemingly intractable difficulties poses a danger, for it leads democratic leaders and publics to imagine they can understand their past and shape the future when in fact they often lack the ability to do either of these things.

Yet such dangerous confidence may also be useful: while the faith that democracies have the ability to shape the future is an illusion, it has enabled them to cope with the challenges they have faced:

At the start of the twentieth century democracy was a largely untried and untested form of politics. It aroused wild hopes and equally wild fears. No one really knew what it might bring. Each crisis was expected to be the last. But over time and through a succession of crises, democracy has spread, strengthened, and endured.

This is the paradox that comes with what Runciman describes as democracy’s confidence trap.

Recognizing that democracy “exists in a semipermanent state of crisis, which makes it hard to know when the crisis needs to be taken seriously,” Runciman examines “seven critical years”:

1918, when democracy was confronted with the catastrophic consequences of an unanticipated war;
1933, when it had to cope with a global slump;
1947, when Europe was being divided and the cold war was developing in the aftermath of World War II;
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962;
oil shock and stagflation in 1974;
short-lived triumphalism in 1989;
and the financial crisis of 2008.

He is far from supposing that any unambiguous lessons can be extracted from these episodes. We like to think of crises as moments of truth; but if anything emerges from the last century it is that democracy triumphed almost inadvertently. The story of democracy is a chapter of accidents whose meaning may never be entirely clear: “It is a tale of contingency and confusion.”

In thinking of democracy in this way Runciman sees himself as following Alexis de Tocqueville, the early-nineteenth-century French aristocrat and parliamentarian from whose Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) he believes we still have much to learn. “The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris—how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift—was Tocqueville.” Neither an optimist nor a pessimist, Tocqueville “did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions.” Runciman does not share these concerns or hopes either, and yet with Tocqueville he seems convinced that the rise of democracy is the great political fact of modern times.

His rich and refreshing book will be of intense interest to anyone puzzled by the near paralysis that seems to afflict democratic government in a number of countries, not least the United States. Runciman’s account of the workings of the confidence trap—the belief that democracy will always survive—will serve as an antidote to the moods of alarm and triumph by which writers on democracy are regularly seized. But the confidence trap is not the only paradoxical feature of modern democracy, and not always the most important. Another comes from democracy’s ambivalent relationship with liberal values.

Nowadays democracy is seen as the embodiment of individual liberty and social pluralism, but the connection may be more tenuous than many people like to think. Runciman appears to have little time for critics of democracy in the ancient world, who feared it as a type of majority tyranny, or for nineteenth-century liberals—such as John Stuart Mill, who corresponded with Tocqueville and much admired the French thinker—who restated these doubts in modern terms. But these thinkers, together with later liberals in the same tradition such as Isaiah Berlin, point to a fact that we forget at our peril: democracy, defined as rule by an elected majority, and liberal values such as personal freedom are not one and the same.

For some, democracy should be defined in the first place as protecting individual freedoms and the rights, including freedom of speech and the press, of minorities, or it is not democracy but a species of majoritarian rule. Others have understood democracy as a type of collective self-government, whose effective functioning may require the protection of some important freedoms but by no means all of those that are cherished in liberal traditions. To the extent that he recognizes this distinction, Runciman leans toward the latter view, but he fails to explore the unavoidable implication: democracy comes in a number of varieties, some of them decidedly illiberal.

The older school of liberal thinkers to which Tocqueville and Mill both belonged valued democracy mainly as a means to other ends, such as liberty and personal development. Runciman seems to think democracy good in itself, while defining it in a way that does not include important liberal freedoms. As a result he leaves it unclear why democracy should be valued so highly, aside from the fact that there are many people who seem to want it.

One of the limitations of Runciman’s analysis is that he has chosen to work with a dichotomy between democracy and other forms of government. “In this book,” he writes,

I draw a primary contrast between “democracy” and “autocracy,” following the current convention. By democracy I mean any society with regular elections, a relatively free press, and open competition for power. These societies are often referred to as “liberal democracies,” though some are more liberal than others. By autocracy I mean any society in which leaders do not face open elections and where the free flow of information is subject to political control…. Some autocracies are dictatorships and some are not. Some are more authoritarian than others.

The trouble with this binary typology is that it mixes distinctions in kind with differences of degree. Saudi Arabia and the post-Mao regime in China may both be autocracies in Runciman’s sense but they have little else in common. The latter is a modernizing authoritarian state while the former is a clan-based monarchy (crafted in the colonial era) that aims to prop up an archaic pattern of life. Both are quite different from dictatorial regimes in semifailed states, such as the Duvalier regime in Haiti, that block elections and freedom of expression while having little capacity to shape the overall direction of society. All of these regimes are very different from the type of autocracy that exists in North Korea, where free expression is not so much blocked, as in China, as rendered impossible by a system in which state power is all-pervading.

If Runciman’s distinctions between democracy and autocracy disregard differences in kind among autocracies, they pass over differences among democracies that are equally fundamental. Current thinking assumes a single ideal type of democracy, from which existing democracies may diverge to a greater or lesser extent. On this view, if a state with regular elections and a relatively free press does not respect individual liberty or attacks minorities, then democracy is not working as well as it should, or else its scope is somehow being curbed by arbitrary power.

Liberal critics of democracy such as Mill and Tocqueville in many of his writings had a different view. Harking back to the work of the influential eighteenth-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought of democracy as a type of collective self-rule that aims to implement the will of the people, they saw no inherent connection between democracy and the freedoms they cherished. Rather, they feared that because democracies could claim greater popular legitimacy than autocracy, freedom might be more threatened in them than it had been in authoritarian regimes in the past. Prefigured in Jacobin rule in revolutionary France, illiberal democracy was a permanent danger. Today this liberal anxiety is unfashionable in many places, and regarded by some as reactionary. That does not mean it has ceased to be relevant.

Runciman tells us that there are many hybrid regimes in which democracy and autocracy are mixed together:

Since Tocqueville wrote, there has been a multiplication of different models of autocratic government, especially in the period since the end of the Cold War. The contest is no longer with monarchy, nor simply with dictatorship. Autocrats have learnt to cherry pick some of the tools of democracy to blur the edges between the two systems. These hybrid regimes have acquired various different names: “competitive authoritarianism,” “exclusionary democracy,” “semiauthoritarianism,” “defective democracy,” or simply “mixed regimes.”

According to Runciman Russia is a hy- brid of democracy and authoritarianism:

Vladimir Putin’s Russia exemplifies one version: repression is combined with liberalization, and elections coexist with entrenched power elites…. Russia has not turned into a democracy. It has turned into a pseudo-democratic kleptocracy, in which people use money to get power and power to get money.

Runciman’s account of the Putin regime illustrates some of the difficulties of his approach. One might quibble that “entrenched power elites” are hardly confined to Putin’s Russia, while from the standpoint of some radical thinkers, using money to get power and power to get money might serve as an accurate description of some aspects of the American political system. In any event the differences between the two systems lie elsewhere. When it uses trumped-up charges to harass or jail opposition figures, or fails to investigate the unexplained deaths of troublesome journalists, the Putin regime shows its indifference to anything resembling the rule of law. When it condones or colludes in the persecution of gay people and religious minorities, it demonstrates its contempt for values of pluralism and toleration.

These features of the regime show how far it is from any kind of civilized government. Certainly Putin’s regime invades or restricts freedoms that are necessary for open political competition: television is controlled and dissenting journals have been forced to close, for example. But a Russian regime in which these curbs on open political competition were absent would not necessarily be more tolerant or pluralistic than the one that currently exists. A system that protected rights to political participation could still violate the freedom of religious minorities, gay people, and others to live as they choose. If such a system was able to identify itself, more thoroughly and completely than Putin has done, with a baleful Russian tradition of communal harmony, the result might be more repressive than the present situation. As Runciman himself writes, “Civilizations are not always democracies; democracies are not always civilized.”

Rather than being a pseudodemocracy, Putin’s Russia more closely resembles the type of democracy against which nineteenth-century liberal thinkers warned. More fundamental than the fact that it is complicit in violence against dissidents, and also endemically corrupt, is the fact that it is defined (and defines itself) by hostility to liberal values. Rather than being a spurious version of democracy of the kind that Western countries profess, Putin’s regime is an anti-Western version of illiberal democracy. Other examples may be found in countries that have been subject to Western-led regime change. Repeating a rationale that has long been rehearsed by Western governments, Runciman writes:

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