Flirting with Disaster

Issue Date October 2014
Volume 25
Issue 4
Page Numbers 169-177
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A review of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman.

There is an ambiguity in the subtitle of this highly original and elegantly written book by David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University. (The title also seems puzzling at first glance, but I will explain that later.) Does “A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present” mean to suggest that democracy has been perpetually “in crisis” for the past one-hundred years? Or does it mean something much less sweeping—namely, that over the past century democracy has experienced certain moments of crisis, which the author proposes to recount and to analyze? The structure of the book, as reflected in its table of contents, seems to confirm this second interpretation. Apart from the preface, introduction, and epilogue, it is composed of seven chapters that examine in some depth the challenges that confronted democracy in a series of critical years—1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989, and 2008. Runciman acknowledges that his selection of years is somewhat arbitrary, and that others such as 1940, 1968, and 2001 might also have been candidates for inclusion. Some of his conclusions are disputable and his fondness for paradox can become irritating, but on the whole he provides a coherent and illuminating account of democracy under threat.

At the same time, much in Runciman’s text points to the broader interpretation of its subtitle. He even states in the preface that democracy “exists in a semipermanent state of crisis” (pp. xix–xx), and argues that [End Page 169] the manner in which democracies respond to crises tends to shape their subsequent politics. He does not attribute this, however, to democracies learning

About the Author

Marc F. Plattner is a member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Board of Directors. He was on the NED staff from 1984 until 2020, serving first as the director of the grants program. In 1989, he became founding coeditor (with Larry Diamond) of the Journal of Democracy. He later served as codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and as NED’s vice-president for research and studies.

View all work by Marc F. Plattner

useful lessons in the course of surmounting critical challenges. In fact, Runciman is dismissive of the capacity of democracies to profit from such lessons. What saves them instead is that they contain institutional safeguards against rash mistakes—free and regular elections, free media, separation of powers. Democratic regimes are superior to nondemocratic regimes above all in being more flexible and adaptable. Though they are prone to choosing wrong-headed policies, they have a remarkable ability to survive their blunders and try something new. This comes not from learning but from improvisation. Democracies are masters at muddling through.

Yet Runciman does not see this democratic talent as a source of reassurance. He worries that democracy’s long record of successfully muddling through makes it overconfident, encouraging its tendency toward drift while its politicians engage in petty squabbling. This gives rise to “the confidence trap” of his title. Here is how he describes it:

Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them. Debt accumulates; retrenchment is deferred. … So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. … Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal (p. 285).

Runciman identifies Alexis de Tocqueville as “the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis” (p. xix), and devotes a substantial part of his introduction to elucidating Tocqueville’s insights on this subject. Here he provides a penetrating reading of Tocqueville, one that brings out an aspect of his thought that has been insufficiently appreciated. For Tocqueville, democracy’s failings were all too apparent, but its superficial instability and disorder belied its subterranean strengths. Especially instructive is Runciman’s comparison of Tocqueville with Thomas Paine, who thought that freeing people from the prejudices of the past would automatically lead them to embrace democracy: “Paine wanted democracy to usher in an age of reason. Tocqueville knew the age of democracy would still have to be founded on faith” (p. 10). Far from being the most transparent form of government, democracy is one of the most opaque.

The agitations that mark the surface of democratic political life foster a recurring sense of crisis. Every election seems to be a crucial turning point in the fate of the nation. The battles between opposing viewpoints in the press are similarly virulent contests that might seem likely to spark civil disorder. Yet Tocqueville discovers that the fevered rhetoric on all sides rarely has this kind of impact; in fact, “the political effects of the license of the press contribute indirectly to the maintenance of public [End Page 170] tranquility.” So democracies become used to confronting all sorts of “sham” or “overblown” crises. But what will happen when they face a true crisis? Tocqueville’s reflections on war suggest that democracies derive real advantages from their greater adaptability, but these can come into play only if they manage to avoid quick defeat by more nimble and decisively governed enemies.

As a glance at the years of crisis selected by Runciman shows, they almost all have a connection with interstate conflict, and many of them involve war or the threat of war. In 1918, Britain, France, and the United States won a great victory on the battlefield, but Runciman reminds us that as late as the middle of that year, many doubted the democracies’ ability to hold out against their autocratic foes. And after the Allies did prevail, they botched the peace.

In the summer of 1933, four years after the onset of the Great Depression, expectations were high that the World Economic Conference convened in London would reverse the unraveling of the world economy. But the British, French, and Americans could not reach an agreement, and the meeting ended in failure at a time when faith in democracy was rapidly eroding and communism and fascism were on the rise. The same year, of course, saw Hitler come to power in Germany, a crisis that proved fatal for the Weimar Republic and led to World War II and the Nazi conquest of much of Europe.

Once again, the Western democracies eventually emerged victorious from a long and bloody war, but they soon found themselves in a new struggle for survival against their erstwhile Soviet allies. In 1947, with Greece and Turkey at risk of falling into the Soviet orbit, President Harry Truman proclaimed that it should be U.S. policy “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” With the adoption of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the doctrine of containment, the United States and its allies steeled themselves to the challenge of the Cold War. Yet serious observers such as Walter Lippmann feared that the democracies lacked the discipline, restraint, and resolve needed to wage so long and complex a struggle against a monolithic foe.

In 1962, the United States succeeded in surviving the Cold War’s most dangerous moment—the Cuban missile crisis. But a number of newer democracies were facing crises of their own. Runciman recounts in some detail India’s defeat that year in the Sino-Indian War, as well as the scandal in West Germany known as the Spiegel affair, which shook the foundations of the country’s young democracy. But in both cases, democracy recovered.

Runciman characterizes 1974 as “the crisis that wasn’t for Western democracy” (p. 189). That year saw the devastating economic impact of the first oil crisis, the Watergate scandal in the United States, and a host of setbacks for democracy elsewhere in the world. The mood of [End Page 171] discouragement sounds familiar today. Runciman quotes columnist James Reston: “The world is now being run by Communist governments that rule by fear and force and by non-Communist governments that do not have the confidence of their peoples. … The political ‘decline of the West’ is no longer a subject for theoretical debate but an ominous reality” (pp. 185–86). Yet somewhere beneath the surface the “third wave” of democratization was beginning to swell.

Runciman acknowledges at the outset of his chapter on 1989 that “it might seem odd” to describe that year as a crisis for democracy (except in China), but he emphasizes the “unnerving” effect of the rupture caused by the sudden collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. He offers some provocative reflections on how Western observers first failed to foresee and then misinterpreted these events. While in Europe democracy certainly was the “winner” in this crisis, the picture is less clear elsewhere, and even in Europe the seeds of new troubles were being sown.

Runciman’s shortest and perhaps least satisfying historical chapter is devoted to the economic crisis of 2008. He does offer some useful insights: about how the crisis helped bring Barack Obama to power, but then made it difficult for him govern; and how the euro wound up creating “the conditions in which difficult questions could be shirked” (p. 290). But somehow this crisis seems to be of a lesser order of magnitude than the others. Runciman himself mentions a reason why this might be so: “It was born out of the success of democracy, not out of some ongoing external threat to it” (p. 266).

This observation underlines a point that is driven home in his earlier chapters: At the heart of the recurring crises they recount, there always lies the struggle between democracy and autocracy. In this respect, the years following 1989 were anomalous. Though plenty of deplorable and frightening things occurred (not least, 9/11), the world largely was safe for democracy, which had no potent rival in the military, economic, or ideological realms, and enjoyed the longest sustained period of supremacy in its history. But in 2014, there is reason to think that those halcyon days are coming to an end.

In fact, one suspects that if Runciman had written his book a few years later, a chapter on 2014 might have replaced the one on 2008. Today, despite the growing assertiveness of autocratic regimes, democracy is still indulging its penchant for drift and delay. Runciman’s historical analysis give us grounds for hope that the democracies will snap out of it before it is too late; but it also cautions us that one cannot always count on muddling through. One of these years, democracy may finally be undone by “the confidence trap.” [End Page 172]