Column: A century of surviving crises left democracy overconfident and vulnerable


We could be in the midst of the beginning of the end of democracy as we know it. Or we could just be in another of those eek-yikes crises that democracy has always managed to triumph over in the last reel. So far. David Runciman is a professor at Cambridge University; his book “The Confidence Trap, a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present” predates the 2016 Brexit vote and Trump election but presupposes the challenges to the strength of democracy that both of those pose. Unlike the crises of the past century — the end of World War I, the Depression, the Cold War and others — democracy’s present stresses are created by democracy itself. And the outcome this time might be very different.


What got you writing about the fragility and overconfidence of democracies?

It came out of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. What started me thinking about it was we’d been through the first decade of this century where there’d been terrible events like 9/11, but democracy was in pretty good shape.


And yet we spent most of that time thinking it was going wrong. When something really bad happened, are we equipped? And the decade since the financial crisis, I think, has just made that problem more acute.

The big problem in a democracy is we never know how bad it is. We’ve just got no measure for judging how much trouble we’re in.

Isn’t that the case for every crisis, like the metaphor of the frog in the water that slowly starts to boil, and he doesn’t know it til he’s cooked?

In my book I look back over 100 years of democratic crises, and I could probably find you, for every year of the 20th century, someone saying, We’re on fire! We’re boiling! This isn’t going to work!

And each time you survive one of those crises, each time you get through, a little bit of complacency builds.

And we hear now that the Constitution. the operative principles of democracy in the United States, are being challenged, even threatened.


So this is the really deep question, and it’s a question of the last two or three years — and we have it in my country [Britain] too, with Brexit, which is, are we entering a new phase? Is the Trump/ Brexit, for want of a better word, populism phase different?

Because the crises that I wrote about, going all the way back to the end of the First World War, testing democratic institutions — the threats tend to come from the outside. And it feels like now we’re in this new phase where the real test is coming from the inside — and not from people who believe in some ideology that is opposed to democracy.

This is not coming from revolutionary Marxists. It’s not coming, I don’t believe, from fascists either. This is coming from politicians who say they’re here to save democracy, but the way they’re going to save it is by testing it to destruction.

I’m torn on this question, but I think possibly we should be alive to the thought that this is new, that that 100-year story of crisis and recovery, crisis and recovery has entered a new phase.

And if this is new, I think we have to really be aware that history is no guide here. We’ve not been through this one before.

Is that where the overconfidence comes from? That we’ve survived these challenges and therefore we can just chug along as before?

The thing about democracies is, it always in a way feels like it is after the event that it was overstated. We inflate the triumphs and we inflate the disasters.

After the First World War, the world was going to be safe for democracy, but it wasn’t. After the Cold War, we’d reached the end of history; this was the triumph of liberal democracy. But it wasn’t.

Democracy is this middling, muddling-through system and the big sweep of it over those 100 years, these lurches of optimism and pessimism, seem to even themselves out.

So when you’re in another phase either of great optimism or great pessimism — I guess we’re now in the pessimism phase, most of us, although there are some super-optimists out there too; it depends on which side you’re on — there’s a tendency to feel, well, once again we’re probably overdoing it.

But the moral at the end of my book is that you can’t keep going like that forever. One of these crises is going to be exactly what it looks like.

Is this why we hear, whether it’s about Brexit or Trump, the accusations that people are overreacting? “Oh, you’re saying that Brexit will ruin the U.K. economy; oh, you’re saying that Trump is triggering a constitutional crisis.” Are there people who are Cassandras, who are speaking the truth and not believed?

Because the last 100 years have been a success story for democracy, what that’s left is the people who want to say, you’re overreacting. It’s given them a weapon which is, we’ve been through much worse than that; this is kind of liberal hysteria. There have been many points where democracies have faced far greater challenges than this. You are overreacting.

You hear it a lot in this country around Brexit; some people are saying it’s far worse than we’ve imagined. But there is an equal constituency on the other side who say, this is just part of the ebb and flow of democratic life. of economic life. There’ll be some hardship but we’ve faced far worse hardships in the past. And that argument is not going to resolve itself until we do it.

It almost gives the people who want to do it an advantage, because they can say, we don’t know until we try. But I think it’s at least possible that some of the Cassandras are right.

There’s Churchill’s remark about democracy being the worst system except for all the others. The appeal of all the others is that it’s definitive. Authoritarianism says yes, no; a command economy makes things turn on a dime.

That’s always been true. You can find in almost any year in the last 100 years someone who is broadly on the side of democracy saying, we are just being outperformed by the autocracies because they are so decisive.

You hear it now with China. I know people who you would think of as basically liberal democrats from this country who are worried about, say, climate change. They go to China and say, the great thing about the Chinese system is they can just do it.

We worry about it, we argue about it. China’s leaders, when they want to do something green, when they want to do something environmental, they can just do it.

That kind of lingering appeal I think of as dictator envy — that kind of feeling that if only we could have our democratic system, but with the extra decisiveness of the autocrat.

But you can’t have it — not and have democracy at the same time.

In Britain there was a survey that got a lot of attention a couple of months ago. The parliamentary society here runs an annual survey, trying to test people’s confidence in democracy. One of the questions that they ask is, do you think we would be better off with a strong leader who ignores the rules? And for the first time, half of respondents have said yeah.

And the appeal of Boris Johnson, who is almost certainly about to become our next prime minister, is partly founded on that, trying to say this Brexit negotiation that’s been going on for three years; it’s so slow and fiddly and cumbersome and full of detail. Can’t we cut through?

I think they’re tapping into that same sense, which is frustration, irritation with the mess of democracy, which is an essential part of democracy, and that feeling that there might be a way to kind of bend the rules, get ‘round the rules, which would speed it all up.

It’s dangerous. It’s a very slippery slope.

Do you see it in the United States as well?

Yeah, sure. I think you see it around the world. There is a pattern of leadership that runs from [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil through Trump, probably going to include the U.K. now, through to Hungary, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi in India.

Very clear identifying of enemies is a big part of it: We know who we like. We know who we don’t like.

It’s sometimes described as a kind of risk that we’re going to go back to the 1930s. And that’s something I have argued recently strongly against.

I don’t think our societies are anything like they were in the 1930s. I think we’re too rich, prosperous, elderly for fascism. I don’t think there’s going to be a moment where we wake up and we discover that the men in uniform have taken over.

But I think there is a sort of drip-drip threat to democracy here.

I don’t think Trump is the end of democracy. I don’t think Brexit is the end of it. Or Boris Johnson as yet. But we’re on a path where that kind of politics could become the norm. I don’t think you can carry on like this for 30, 40 years without the fundamentals being eroded.

Things that are beyond the immediate reach of politics, like climate change at what point do we have crises that make people demand that democratic politics respond appropriately?

People say you should never say, this time is different. But I think this time might be different because climate doesn’t fit the 20th century pattern. What tends to happen — and this is the other famous thing that Churchill said, about American democracy, and I’m paraphrasing it, but he roughly said American democracy won’t do the right thing until the last moment.

This is a system of government that will eventually get there but only after it’s exhausted all of the easier options. And with wars and economic crises, that’s just about OK. You get to the edge of the abyss and then you snap out of it.

But that’s assuming that the crisis is there right in front of us.

Whereas the climate crisis is on a time lag. It’s at least possible that the climate crisis is the crisis that democracy can’t cope with, because democracies need the threats to be visible and immediate, a real and present danger.

And this one is a real danger. But it’s not present. It’s 20, 30 years down the line. This one may be the one that we aren’t going to wake up to in time. And that’s the really chilling thought.

Does democracy share with authoritarianism a need to say, here’s the finish line and we’ve won?

Yeah that “Mission Accomplished” moment. I would say what makes democracy different is that we do have our kind of moment of truth. And they’re called elections.

We operate to this cycle that we feel we need to wait for the next election to tell us where we are. We feel it here in Britain; we’re probably going to have a general election sooner or later, and people think that election will let us know what the real Brexit story is.

The Trump election in 2020 will be a verdict — did people embrace this, or did they not embrace this?

But almost every election, people feel, will tell us where we are and it very, very rarely does.

It’s the great thing about democracy — there’s always another election ‘round the corner. That is a big part of its appeal. Nothing is ever fixed. Nothing’s pinned down. You lost this time, you could win next time

But it does mean that that hunger for certainty will never ever be met.

Was it George Orwell saying that when people aren’t paying attention to politics, things are fine; it’s when they really start paying attention to politics that you need to worry?

Quite a few people have made this point that when politics gets really heated, as it is now, and really angry and really divisive, what you have to hope for is that people in the end just get tired and they get exhausted.

A big part of the point of representative democracy is that it was meant to rescue people from politics. Give the politicians the politics to do, and give the voters every now and then a moment where they can express themselves, and they can get on with their lives the rest of the time.

And we are in a phase of democratic life at the moment where politics is becoming all-consuming, including for some people who would much rather it wasn’t.

I know many people — you probably know many people — who say they’re sick of it, sick of politics. Why does it have to take up so much of our attention? Why can’t we talk about something else?

If enough people start to feel that, that’s probably a good sign. That’s probably a sign that we may be past the most heated point of this. But we’re not there yet.

Do systems of government have sell-by dates, expiration dates? Do they just run out of gas and something else comes along?

I think they do. Nothing is forever. And liberal democracy is not the end of history; there’s nothing eternal about that.

When we talk about the [democratic] system of government, are we talking about the thing that we’ve lived with for maybe at most 100 years? And that well could well be running out of steam.

Then there’s a much longer story of democracy that goes all the way back to the ancient world, a basic underlying idea that democracy is about political equality and people taking charge of their own destiny.

Something has been around for 2,000 years is unlikely to end in our lifetimes. Something that’s been around for 100 years could easily end in our lifetime. One hundred years is a long time in politics, but were it to end in the next 20 years, that wouldn’t be so amazing.

But the basic idea of democracy, which is that human beings are equal and they should be allowed to rule themselves — that’s not going to go away any time soon.

What would a new chapter in your book, about 2016 forward, have to say?

This is a crisis that has been brought about by in both cases by an election, a vote, which was not true of the other crises that I write about.

In this case, the crisis is a pure crisis of democracy. It’s not a crisis that’s been brought on democracy. That makes it feel different. And that makes it feel in some ways as though it might be — if this does do terminal damage to democracy in either country, democracy did it to itself.

We don’t know, because we’re only three years on. You have to ask me again in five years.