The Dangers of Democracy

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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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The Republican National Convention, New York City, 2004
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ran into trouble because of bad planning, insufficient local knowledge, and the political divisions they generated at home.

An alternative view might suggest that if sufficient thought had been given both to the two societies and post-invasion planning, the wars would not have been launched in the first place. In their different ways each of the countries concerned has its own divisions. Even when the result of an intervention has not been a failed state of the sort that now exists in Libya, the regimes that have emerged in the wake of Western intervention have been fractured and weak. Given tribal rivalries in Afghanistan and sectarian conflict in Iraq, such weakness was only to be expected. But if these states evolve to become more orderly and effective, they may not become more like the democracies that have existed in the United States and Europe. If they continue to reflect predominant cultural and religious values more than any idea of freedom, such states could just as well develop into versions of illiberal democracy.

Mill and Tocqueville, along with others like the French writer and politician Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), viewed the rise of democracy as inevitable and in many ways highly desirable; but they also feared democracy as a type of government in which freedom could be threatened more completely than it had been in Europe’s monarchies and empires. For them democracy was a form of popular government, and they feared an overbearing majority as much as the kings and princes of the past—indeed more so, since democratic government would be more widely accepted. They spent much of their lives devising safeguards against this danger, arguing for electoral and constitutional restraints, including entrenched rights that limited the scope of democratic decision-making while making the most of democracy’s potential for good.

They did not imagine that such legal restraints could be sufficient to protect individuals and minorities from oppression. If the majority of people, or organized sections of the population, are indifferent to freedom or prefer a type of society in which it is subordinated to other values, no rules or procedures could prevent a democratic version of tyranny.

This older school of liberal thought did not subscribe to the twentieth-century notion that the rise of liberal democracy is part of the normal course of modern development. If you believe the distinction between autocracy and democracy captures the most important difference between political regimes, you will be tempted to think that illiberal democracy is simply democracy in an undeveloped form, a phase in a process of growth and maturation that, while not strictly inevitable in its outcome, tends to produce a freedom-loving type of government. For liberals such as Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville, however, there was no such law of development. There could be no assurance that illiberal democracy represented a transitional phase in history.

It may be true that once a certain level of development has been attained, democracy tends to be irreversible. Discussing the level that must be reached before democratic states are sustainable, Runciman writes:

There does appear to be a confidence threshold for any successful democracy. Once the threshold is passed, it becomes very unlikely that the move to democracy will be reversed…. No democracy has reverted to autocratic government once per capita GDP has risen above $7,000.

But liberal versions of democracy are not similarly irreversible, and there are signs that a shift is underway in a number of European countries. Referring to the difficulties faced by elected politicians in coping with the protracted economic slowdown, Runciman writes:

In…Italy and Greece, democracy was briefly suspended for a form of technocratic executive rule: appointed experts were given temporary powers to stabilize the economy and pass budget reforms. These experiments with autocracy did not signal the abandonment of democracy; instead, they signaled the propensity of established democracies to try anything in a crisis.

No doubt such experiments do not in themselves pose a risk to democracy. But wider developments in European politics, which formed the background to the decision to suspend democracy in the two countries, present a less reassuring picture.

It is not just that Europe’s political classes have shown themselves incapable of dealing with the scale of social dereliction that has been produced by policies of austerity designed to shore up the single currency in a situation of a global financial upheaval. The incapacity of mainstream parties has set off a blowback, which in several countries has taken the form of the rising influence of the far right. Not only in Greece and Italy, but also in France and Hungary, an all-too-familiar type of European politics has reemerged that is based on the demonization of minorities and hostility to immigrants.

Whether the parties promoting this politics are overtly neo-Nazi as in the case of the Golden Dawn in Greece, or claim to have renounced any links with fascism and Nazism as does the National Front in France, or else appear as indeterminate expressions of populist protest such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, these are movements in which the classical themes of the European far right have been visibly renewed. Among these themes are a wholesale rejection of established elites and the assertion of an imaginary “organic” national culture from which minorities are excluded, together with suspicion or hatred of Jews, Roma, immigrants, and gay people. Demonizing and excluding these minorities are central strands in all of these movements.

Though there is a real possibility that they could form a powerful coalition in the EU Parliament after the European elections in 2014, there is little chance of these parties coming to power in any European country. Instead the risk is that European politics will be diverted from the path it has followed, in most Western European countries most of the time, since World War II. Democracy is not going to be replaced by autocracy, but it could well become increasingly illiberal.

Runciman devotes comparatively little space to the European situation. From one point of view this is understandable, since the book is mainly focused on illustrating the contemporary relevance of Tocqueville’s thinking on democracy in America. From another angle this is a large omission. He writes as if any connection that might exist between the emergence of democracy and the rise of the nation-state is largely incidental, when in fact the two have been closely intertwined. Democracy and national self-determination have advanced hand in hand, and while many nation-states have had authoritarian governments, the nation-state has also proved to be the upper limit of democratic accountability.

There are a few multinational democracies—Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Canada, and the United Kingdom, for example—but except for Switzerland, they are descendants of monarchy and empire rather than burgeoning forms of cosmopolitan government. There is no prospect of a democratic equivalent of the Habsburg Empire, which protected civilized values more effectively during its last sixty years than did most of the nation-states by which it was replaced during the nearly one hundred years that followed the empire’s collapse in the aftermath of World War I.

The difficulty facing Europe is that while solving the eurozone’s economic problems demands a fiscal union that transcends national governments, any such construction will lack democratic legitimacy. If democracy in Europe faces a more serious crisis than democracy in America—as I think may be the case—one reason is that the US has been a cohesive nation-state for many generations, while the eurozone is highly unlikely to develop into anything similar for the foreseeable future. Even supposing the European continent wanted to imitate the American experience of nation-building, it would seem unlikely that the process, involving deep national conflicts and several visionary presidents, could be compressed into a few years or decades.

Runciman is fairly optimistic about the prospects of American democracy. Writing before the recent American government shutdown and subsequent flirtation with debt default, he notes that the protest movements that emerged from the financial crisis “needed the crisis to get a lot worse for their message to stick.” Because the crisis did not get much worse, the impact of these populist forces was bound to be limited:

The fact remains that in the complex moral and political economy of a long-standing democracy, the search for an authentic popular politics is always liable to run up against the capacity of the system to accommodate piecemeal change.

As events have shown, the Tea Party retains substantial veto power. Possessed by apocalyptic myths of national disaster and renewal, it has derailed the practice of compromise on which democracy depends. The upshot is a course of events not anticipated in Tocqueville’s analysis. Rather than being monopolized by a tyrannous majority, American government is being immobilized by an irreconcilable minority. Against a background of polarization not only between parties but also within the Republican Party, it is piecemeal change that is being stymied.

Such a high degree of polarization is not unprecedented (there were similar divisions in the aftermath of the Civil War and toward the end of the nineteenth century) and there can be little doubt that the current gridlock will eventually be overcome, in view of the basic Democratic majority. However difficult the problems of American government, solving them does not require—as it does in the eurozone—the creation of a new state. Even so, there are probably few people outside the United States who any longer regard American government as a model that should be emulated.

That is not to say that authoritarian regimes possess an enduring advantage. China has been more effective to date in dealing with the effects of the financial crisis than most Western governments; but the post-Mao regime is feared rather than admired, and precisely because of its ruthless pragmatism it presents no ideological challenge to democracy. As Runciman writes, “the fellow travelers of Chinese state capitalism in the West are very thin on the ground.” Like many others, he believes that China’s economic success is likely to generate problems in the future:

In the long run autocratic regimes struggle to match the rising expectation of their populations and to meet their growing demand for a greater say in their government…. It is hard to see how the present regime can keep a lid on its discontents as it continues to grow.

While it is nothing like a democracy, the present regime in China is also a type of government whose survival ultimately depends on meeting the demands of the majority. Heavily dependent on continuing economic expansion, political stability is more at risk in times of low economic growth in China than it is in most democracies. China’s impressive economic advance carries with it major vulnerabilities.

Yet if the present regime fails, there can be no certainty about what will replace it. Even if it were more democratic—a large if—a state headed by the now disgraced Bo Xilai would not necessarily have been more respectful of personal freedom or the claims of ethnic and other minorities. Any successor regime might be just as determined to stamp out dissidence in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In general, the spread of democracy has often set off movements for secession, as groups that fear becoming permanent minorities struggle to establish their own states. In interwar Central and Eastern Europe, parts of postcolonial Africa, and post-Tito Yugoslavia, the emergence of democracy was accompanied by intense civil and ethnic conflict. It is hard to think of a convincing reason why China would be different. As in other parts of the world, any move to democracy will very likely come at significant human cost.

Democracy may be the only game in town, as Runciman believes. Certainly it continues to be the great political fact of the age. With its enormous adaptability, it has repeatedly defied the prognostications of those who have declared it doomed. It may well go on doing so. But democracy is a more ambiguous achievement than most of its admirers today realize. The warnings of Tocqueville and others from an earlier generation of liberal thinkers have not lost their force.