Democracy Will Die, Maybe in Its Sleep

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University, is one of the more compelling analysts in the expanding field of democratic decline. His last book, “The Confidence Trap,” which was published in 2013, took the measure of democracy as overconfident and underprepared. His new book, “How Democracy Ends,” depicts what the title suggests, but perhaps not in the way many might expect. Instead of cataclysm, Runciman envisions political senescence.

What follows is a lightly edited Q&A that I conducted with Runciman, via email, over several days in May.

Wilkinson: Your last book dwelled heavily on the capacity of democracies to muddle through and come out of crisis or malaise. This book strikes me as more pessimistic. Has your analysis changed or are the times — with autocrats and wannabes rising in Europe and the U.S. — eroding your faith?

Runciman: The title of this new book sounds pretty gloomy, but really I’m trying to push back against the idea that the end for democracy is now.

That said, I do believe we have to take seriously the idea that democracy will end at some point. But I don’t think acknowledging that we all die eventually is pessimism. It’s realism.

My view is that we are probably in the later stages of the democratic story, somewhere over the hill. But the later stages of people’s lives can be the best years, if they face up to the fact that they are old. My fear is that we are still behaving as though democracy is young. It’s not. There are a lot more pessimistic books out there, warning of the coming of a new age of fascism. I don’t think that, and I don’t believe that’s what Trump, Orban, Erdogan represent.

Wilkinson: The most readily identifiable threats to democracy in the U.S. and Europe today come from the right. There’s no wave of Maoism or Red Brigades sweeping the West. Mostly we see ethno-nationalist politics featuring varying degrees of conservative populism. To what degree is a crisis within conservatism fomenting a crisis within democracy?

Runciman: I take a more ecumenical view, first because I don’t think what’s happening on the right is the equivalent of Maoism on the left. We’re not talking about the takeover of the state by a movement built on violence and ideology.

Conservative populism is much more erratic and opportunistic than that. It is also much less violent. Over time, its poisonous rhetoric chips away at the coherence of democratic institutions and makes it harder for them to function effectively. But that’s not the same as risking the collapse of democracy into authoritarianism.

A big part of the argument of my book is that we should be wary of treating political phenomena that look and sound like what we’ve seen in the past as evidence that we are encountering the same risks that we ran in the past. Conservative populism has some pretty nasty echoes of much more violent, earlier incarnations. When Trump said at the first general-election debate that if he were president, his opponent would be in jail, it sounds terrible. But he is president, and Hillary Clinton is not going to jail.

The crisis within conservatism is a crisis very much within democracy — no one is yet pushing to overthrow democracy and replace it with something else. So we face a different sort of risk. Because political debate and action continue to be framed by democratic values and institutions, those values and institutions get devalued by low tactics and rhetoric. Trump risks making democracy seem ridiculous precisely because he still operates within a democratic context. He devalues democracy without quitting it.

I think the challenge looks different in Europe. In Britain, populism is at least as much a feature of the left as of the right — especially if we mean wild rhetoric that is hard to square with institutional constraints. In that respect, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has more in common with Trump than conservative Prime Minister Theresa May does.

The difference is that this kind of leftist politics hasn’t come to power yet in a major Western democracy. But somewhere, sometime it will. The leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon finished not far behind National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election. Corbyn and Melenchon are not ethno-nationalists but they are Euro-sceptics, and they remain determined to do their own thing.

Are they saner than Trump and all he represents? Yes. But has the left kept its head while the right is losing its mind? Not from where I'm sitting.

Wilkinson: Part of the difficulty in conceptualizing post-democracy is that recognizable alternatives seem so unappealing. You lay out three alternatives: pragmatic authoritarianism (China-ish), epistocracy (rule by enlightened elites) and “liberated technology” (hail, robot overlords). Each would require a drastic makeover of democratic culture. But if democracy’s current “intimations of mortality” are, as you write, the preface to the end, such a transformation is pending.

Can you ground this future in a historical context — 1789, 1848, 1917, 1989 — or is this simply uncharted territory?

Runciman: I’m more of an 1848er. The slow birth of democracy in the second half of the 19th century is likely to be mirrored by an equally slow demise. From 1848 until universal suffrage took the best part of a century in most major Western countries; the unwinding might take just as long. I think the sudden lurches of the past century — 1917, 1933 or 1989 — are less useful guides, though they are fresher in our historical memory.

The sudden collapse of a regime is always possible, but we currently overstate its likelihood for societies as prosperous, elderly and set in their ways as ours. The environment, the global financial system and the technological infrastructure on which we all depend are more likely to fail suddenly than democracy is. That said, if they do fail suddenly, they will probably take democracy down with them.

The “intimations of mortality” I refer to are similar to those that people start to feel in middle age. It’s a sense that an end is coming, even if it’s a long way off. That’s why I describe this era as a midlife crisis for democracy. What we are frightened of is change.

All in all, I do think we are in uncharted territory, both because none of us truly knows what it’s like to grow old until we get there, and because of the (as yet unfulfilled) possibility of technology having a genuinely transformative effect on politics. Our democracies are growing old, but the digital revolution is still in its infancy.

Our world has changed so much in the past 30 years — altering how we live on almost every level except democratic politics. Even the political upheavals of the last couple years, from Brexit to Trump, are small change compared with the impact that Facebook is having on human experience. At some point, that change will catch up with democracy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just a glimpse of the new world to come — for good or ill.

Wilkinson: Do you see the concentration, in recent decades, of wealth and power in a global elite as a factor in democracy's decline? Or is that happening on a parallel track?

Runciman: It’s definitely part of the problem, but it’s not anything new. Concentrations of wealth and power are a perennial feature of democratic life; they tend to go together!

Even the global aspect fits into a much older story. Powerful, internationally minded elites have always tried to float free of the petty concerns of ordinary voters. The beginning of the 21st century is a lot like the end of the 19th, another age of financial crisis, technological change, rising inequality and populist revolt. Even some of the names are the same. When I hear politicians on the left — Melenchon is one but there are others — complaining about the Rothschilds, I feel like we’re back in 1896. It’s better than being back in 1933, but it’s still not a great place to be.

Democratic politics has shown that it can rise to this challenge: Monopolies can be broken up, racist paranoia can be resisted, populist anger does dissipate. But we still need to ask whether this time might be different.

Some of it is a question of scale. The new tech monopolies combine so many different interests that it’s hard to know where their influence starts and ends. As I say in the book, being Mark Zuckerberg is like being Rockefeller and Hearst combined: He owns the digital oil wells and the digital printing presses.

Both money and power move so quickly that it is much harder than it used to be to keep track of them. Democratic politics, which for much of its history was blamed for being too fickle and skittish, now often looks too cumbersome and ponderous. (Witness the recent attempt by members of Congress to question Zuckerberg: It was embarrassing.)

In an age of increasing complexity, pressing problems often demand technical solutions. The big danger to democracy is the concentration of wealth and power with technical expertise — in tech, finance and universities.

Solving problems is better than not solving them. But the solutions are often beyond democratic control — the input of the voting public is getting downgraded all the time. We wait for others to provide the answers. It’s undignified. That produces resentment and the inevitable backlash against expertise. There may be no good historical parallels here, given just how much rapid technological change is in the pipeline. The 1896 story ended up with the First World War. We have no idea where the current version ends.

Wilkinson: You write in the book: “We really have left the 20th century behind. We need another frame of reference.” I’m pretty confident that 1896 is not the frame you have in mind. But I have difficulty getting my head into whatever that new space might be.

The idea of America is nourished by themes and myths of liberty, independence, autonomy. Those notions, in turn, are derived from a democratic Big Bang that, over time, expanded into emancipation and suffrage in an evolving democratic universe. It’s hard to envision post-democratic Europe. It’s harder to imagine post-democratic America because it would cease, in my mind at least, to be American. As a parting shot, can you talk about the fate of democratic national identities in a post-democratic world?

Runciman: I accept that this is the big challenge. My book is designed to highlight how broad and murky the vistas ahead are, but also the dangers of clinging to what is familiar. All sides in current politics — even the radicals — are sticking to what they know. At some point we will all have to let go.

The idea of democracy in America has always been underpinned by a notion of continuing emancipation — when things get stuck, the answer is to expand the reach of democratic opportunity. That period is probably over, though there will be plenty of tinkering round the edges.

The franchise can’t get much bigger or much younger. The growth of the electorate is likely to be at the other end of the scale as more and more old people tilt toward intergenerational conflict — not just between two generations but among three, four or more. One reason I feel democracy is coming to an end is that it has always been a politics for young people, going all the way back to the ancient world. It’s now a politics for old people.

Nations whose identity is bound up with being democratic — like the U.S. — may find the 21st century harder than those, like China, with different founding myths. Telling Americans that what they have in common is that all are (small-d) democrats does more to divide than unite them at present.

Yet the irony is that Americans are still (small-d) democrats, including those young people who tell pollsters that they are open to other systems of government. They may see the value of other systems, but they aren’t doing anything to bring about that sort of change. The political shifts are in stretching democracy out — technocracy over here, identity politics over there — rather than transforming it into something else.

America’s post-democratic future is likely to entail the continuing fragmentation of its political identity. Politics will become at once more local and more global, more individualistic and more networked, more populist and more technocratic. There are worse fates. And there are still wonderful things that could happen, even in that scenario.

Most of these changes will be branded in the name of democracy, with the result that democracy will become an increasingly empty idea. America’s future is to call itself a democratic country while behaving like a country that doesn’t know what it is any more. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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