David Runciman: How Democracy Ends
Reviewed by Mark Mazower
Democracy dies in darkness” runs the slogan on the Washington Post masthead, but if democracy really is dying around us, its demise has never been so loudly heralded nor so brightly lit. Even before Donald Trump’s emergence as a presidential candidate, it was clear that the global trend away from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones had slowed down; his rise was accompanied by a barrage of authors’ warnings that we are heading back into the 1930s. Never have the last days of Weimar seemed so worthy of study. Historians have developed a nice sideline in self-help manuals for a life of underground resistance to tyranny.
David Runciman’s bracingly intelligent new book is both a contribution to this debate and a refutation of it. How Democracy Ends shares the widespread sense that representative democracy is not doing well, but argues powerfully against screaming fascism at every turn. History, as Runciman states at the outset, does not repeat itself. The challenge he sets himself is to use the past to see what has happened to democracy today, in particular to diagnose its ailments, without assuming that the only alternative is the one imprinted on our collective memory.
That memory, after all, is a short one. The ancient Greeks may have invented democracy but they felt deeply ambivalent about it, regarding it as just one of the phases in the political cycle. It was not until the start of the 19th century that a democratic wave began to emerge again, in the Americas and briefly in southern Europe, and not until the second half of the 20th that representative democracy in the sense we have known it spread around the world. In that relatively brief span of time, it was fought over by liberals and socialists, rejected – in its “bourgeois” form – by communists, and smothered by dictators who could rarely decide whether what they were doing was superseding or perfecting it. After the second world war, parliamentary democracy got a new lease of life.
When the cold war ended, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to leave democracy as the only game in town. By the beginning of this century, most political scientists, especially but not only in the US, had come to believe that liberal democracy was the new normal, something to which the entire world should aspire. The crushing of the Arab spring, and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, could be written off as backsliding in polities whose democratic roots were shallow. It was the 2016 US presidential elections that, in a single moment, changed an implausibly rosy (and complacent) outlook, replacing it with an equally implausible pessimism. Runciman says democracy is in a funk, for reasons that go far beyond Trump, but that unless we can stimulate our political imaginations to understand the new ways in which democracies can fail, we will not appreciate the scale of the problem before us. He identifies three contemporary challenges in particular. The first, paradoxically, is that levels of political violence have gone down. This means that, in such places as the US or Europe, democratic failure is not likely to happen in the old-fashioned way, through a military coup d’état. Those will still occur elsewhere, but the stability of democratic institutions suggests it is more likely that democracies will be undermined invisibly, from within... read more: