“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.