The Confidence Trap by David Runciman: Are we too complacent about democracy?

A paean to muddling through.

The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from
World War I to the Present

David Runciman
Princeton University Press, 408pp, £19.95

Democracy is the prevalent form of government in the modern world, the norm to which it is believed all civilised states should aspire. But it was not always so. It began in Athens in the fifth century BC as, in the words of the Cambridge political philosopher John Dunn, “an improvised remedy for a very local Greek difficulty 2,500 years ago”. The Athenians, however, practised direct democracy in which the people made decisions for themselves rather than relying on elected representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Admittedly Athenian democracy was very limited: it was restricted to male citizens, with women and slaves excluded. Direct democracy still survives in a few small cantons in Switzerland, town meetings in the United States and, in an attenuated form, in some parish meetings in England.

In the modern world, representative democracy is the norm and the latter part of the 20th century seemed to witness its global triumph. That was a striking contrast with the first half of the 20th century. In 1926, there were just 26 democracies among the nations of the world and these came under threat after the Great Depression, which began in 1929. As a result of the impact of fascism and National Socialism, the frontiers of democracy were pushed back. In 1931, when Spain returned – temporarily, as it turned out – to parliamentary government, Mussolini declared that it was like returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In 1934, António Salazar, the dictator of Portugal, said: “I am convinced that within 20 years, if there is not some retrograde movement in political evolution, there will be no legislative assemblies left in Europe.”

By 1940, it was an open question whether democracy could survive in the west or, indeed, at all. After the fall of France, Churchill declared that if Britain were to fail in its resistance to Nazi Germany, “The whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.” By 1942, there were only 12 democracies left. Yet, with the defeat of Hitler, democracy revived.

In the last two decades of the 20th century were further waves of democratisation: in Latin America in the 1980s and in eastern Europe, following the collapse of communism, in the 1990s – and also, though less noticed, in Africa, where 30 ruling parties or leaders have been ousted by voters since 1991. By the millennium, 120 out of the 188 members of the United Nations could be classed as democracies. It is possible that the Arab spring will herald a further wave of democratisation, although it is too early to tell.

Political scientists have devoted much time to analysing the transition to democratic rule and the conditions for stable democracy. They have sought, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, to discover how burgeoning democracies can “get to Denmark”, that country being, as David Runciman puts it, “perhaps the most livable society on earth, a prosperous, stable, experimental, law-abiding, well governed state”.

In The Confidence Trap, he sets himself an even more challenging task: that of analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome. His work is in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, perhaps the greatest book ever written about democracy, and of James Bryce, whose American Commonwealth, an attempt at a sequel to de Tocqueville’s work, Runciman rightly rescues from oblivion.

The introductory chapter of The Confidence Trap describes in a fresh and convincing way de Tocqueville’s conception of democracy. Runciman agrees with de Tocqueville that democracy is an opaque system, with its strengths – its flexibility, its powers of adaptation and improvisation – largely hidden from view. Previous advocates of democracy such as Tom Paine had argued that it was a transparent form of government: “Whatever are its excellencies and defects, they are visible to all.” De Tocqueville, by contrast, understood that it was the weaknesses of democracy that were visible and obvious, while the strengths were often difficult to apprehend. Democracy, he believed, often seemed less efficient than dictatorship but it was better at resolving crises.

Yet, precisely because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them. As the crisis over the budget in the US shows all too graphically, elected politicians are happy to squabble, comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient. Muddling through has worked in the past. Why should it not work in the future? So, in Runciman’s graphic description, “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. Both sides play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal.” That is what Runciman means by the confidence trap. The confidence that we all have in the problem-solving capacities of democracy traps us into a devil-may-care optimism.

Runciman analyses the trap through a tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty: 1918, when the then US president, Woodrow Wilson, sought unsuccessfully to make the world safe for democracy; 1933, when another US president, Franklin Roosevelt, scuppered the World Economic Conference by taking the US off the gold standard; 1947, when Europe began again with democratic institutions and found itself called on to resist Soviet intransigence; 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis; 1974 and the oil shock; 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall; and 2008, the year of the financial collapse.

Runciman sees 2008 as a double failure. The voters failed to restrain politicians and public officials from financial excess; while the central bankers, who had been given independence from political pressures precisely so that they could correct the errors of those uninstructed in the mysteries of high finance, used this freedom, in Runciman’s words “to indulge their own prejudices”.

However, the chapters on the seven crises do not equal the book’s impressive opening. They amount to little more than a dusting over of fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception. Runciman asks, for example, whether anyone foresaw the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989 and discovers few prophets. Yet, in the early 1950s, Churchill told his private secretary, John Colville, that if Colville lived to his “natural span”, he would see the end of communism in Europe, since the communists would be unable to digest what they had swallowed. Colville died in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Confidence Trap is less a work of research or scholarship than a commentary on events, strong on paradox and epigram rather than analysis and written in a somewhat rhapsodic style, which occasionally becomes wearisome. What, for example, are we to make of this? “Democracies tend to overreach themselves when they outlast or defeat autocratic rivals, because they assume the truth about democracy has finally been revealed.” True, perhaps, of 1918 but of 1945 or 1989? Runciman pontificates: “The sense of crisis is permanent in democracies and for that reason rarely definitive.” This sounds impressive but is it true? Was there a sense of crisis in Britain in the 1950s or the US in the Eisenhower era? Part of the problem of British democracy in the 1930s, confronted as it was by Hitlerism, was precisely that there was not a sense of crisis when there ought to have been.

Some of Runciman’s statements are quite vacuous. For instance: “Democracies turn victories into defeats. However, because they misapprehend what they have done, they also turn victories into defeats.” It was Sainte-Beuve who said of de Tocqueville that he had begun to think before he learned anything; perhaps the same criticism can be directed at some of those who seek to follow in de Tocqueville’s footsteps.

Runciman concludes by identifying four areas where democracies “have performed poorly over the past decade”: “They have fought unsuccessful wars, mismanaged their finances, failed to take meaningful action on climate change and seemed frozen in the face of China’s growing power.”

Nevertheless, as he recognises, democracies, in their rough and ready way, have been able to meet these challenges. They have done so not by imposing rules to constrain popular appetites, as gurus such as Hayek and Kennan would have wished, but by adaptation. The Confidence Trap is a paean to muddling through. To defeat fascism and communism, liberal democracy “did not have to deliver on its promises . . . It simply had to retain its promise, as something that it still made sense to believe in.”

I am not wholly convinced that Runciman has identified the main challenges faced by modern democrats and, in particular, democrats on the left. He does not confront the problem, which nearly destroyed democracy in the 1930s, of ensuring that it does not become powerless in the face of its enemies. How can democracies be induced to defend themselves? The problem, while not as acute today as it was in the 1930s, is nevertheless one that ought not to be evaded. While there can be little doubt that the recent Commons vote on Syria reflected public opinion, we cannot, as some on the left would wish, pull the blankets over our heads and opt out of all foreign engagements. The left must do all it can to help the liberal and democratic forces seeking to transform Iran and the Arab world and ensure that the Arab spring does not turn into a bleak winter.

The left must also combat the widespread feeling of disenchantment felt by so many democrats, especially among the young. In the west, we now find ourselves empowered in our roles as consumers and recipients of public services – but we have not been empowered as citizens. There is a striking contrast between the active consumer and the passive citizen. Democracies have not yet responded to the spirit of individualism released by the rebellion of 1968. While the rhetoric of the rebellion was neo-Marxist, it sought in reality a wider and more genuine version of the democratic ideal. The rebels owed less to Marx than to the ideals of participatory democracy of Rousseau and of Mill.

The main catchword of the rebels was participation and their basic message was a distrust of the large, bureaucratic institutions that had come to dominate modern representative democracies. In place of such institutions, they favoured direct election, party primaries, party reform, the recall, the initiative – instruments of direct democracy that would, so they believed, enable the people to hold their leaders to account. They foresaw that the era of pure representative democracy was coming to an end.

The real confidence trap, so it seems to me, is the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society. The task of the left is to make the forms congruent with the forces. That requires a return to the original Greek conception of democracy as a system in which the people make more decisions for themselves – all the people and not just those who happen to be elected as representatives.

In June 1685, Colonel Richard Rumbold, an unreconstructed leader of the Levellers, was about to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his role in the Rye House plot against Charles II. In his last moments, he said: “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” That vision still lies at the heart of the democratic ideal, even if we remain far from realising it. The task of the left is to bring us nearer to realising it.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British Long arm of the state: Chinese police in June History, King’s College London

Power games: Democracy Plaza, New York City, on voting day in November 2004. Image: Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood