HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS
By David Runciman
The election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist/populist movements in Europe are phenomena that have led many to question the health of Western politics. In particular, there has been much hand-wringing over political polarization and authoritarian threats to democracy. Are we in the grip of a “democratic recession”?
Discords are not healed. Representative Assemblies, and so-called democratic governments, have fallen into contempt. Disappointment with ‘popular government’ shows itself in the growth of ‘direct action,’ in reversions to autocracy, and the like.
That is a judgment that could have come from any number of recently published books, such as How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder, or How Democracy Ends by David Runciman.
In fact, it’s taken from a chapbook my grandfather wrote that was published by Ryerson Press in 1933, titled Is Democracy Doomed?
In other words, the alarm has been sounding for a long time.
The direst warnings heard today draw comparisons between what’s happening now and the rise of tyrants like Hitler and Stalin. For Runciman, however, such analogies are overdrawn. In his eyes our situation is a far cry from what it was in the 1930s. Instead, what we are experiencing is a more prosperous, well-established democracy beset by a mid-life crisis.
He does admit there’s a problem. “Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become.”
The good news is that we can change. The great strength of democracy has always been its ability to adapt to various crises. Indeed, Runciman argues that it performs best when under pressure (an optimism not shared by Levitsky and Ziblatt, who think Trump’s ability to exploit a crisis represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today).
With an eye to the near future, Runciman identifies three challenges that could take democracy down: coup, catastrophe, and technology. Of these he is most concerned with the third, describing Mark Zuckerberg as a bigger threat to democracy than Donald Trump, and Facebook as the new Leviathan or digital overlord. Timothy Snyder also sees social media as danger, though he casts Vladimir Putin in the role of puppet master.
Whatever the threat, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of our politics. As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, democracy is more likely to die not with a bang but a whimper: undone by incremental steps that may be imperceptible until, like the frog in the pot being brought to a boil, we don’t realize what’s happening until we’re cooked.
This “mindlessness” is a major theme in How Democracy Ends. For Runciman the election of Trump in 2016 is evidence that people felt overly secure, to the point that they believed anyone could be elected president and it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a false sense of comfort, and it underlines Runciman’s main concern: that we take democracy too much for granted. Snyder addresses something similar in The Road to Unfreedom, alerting us to authoritarian forms of politics that turn us into zombies and our elections into empty rituals. “Democracies die when people cease to believe that voting matters.” Hence the need for books such as these to keep us on our toes.
Of course democracy is a continually evolving experiment, and part of the problem in identifying threats to it lies in defining what core principles we think need to be protected. Looking around the world at the different political systems calling themselves democratic we see a wide variety of hybrid forms, not all of which stand for the same things.
Even granted a baseline of free votes in a fair election there is a wide latitude for disagreement. Is the party system democratic? My grandfather didn’t think so. Which electoral system is best for democracy: proportional representation or first-past-the-post? What do we mean by “populism” anyway? Is it an excess of democracy, or just democracy we don’t like?
“Mature, Western democracy is over the hill,” Runciman concludes. “Its prime is past.” Though unlikely to end or die anytime soon, we might expect it to change into something different. In navigating that change we still have some degree of choice. These books aren’t epitaphs so much as guidebooks to where we’ve been and where we may be going.
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 22, 2018.