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How democracy dies

The fundamentals of Western politics are under threat. So what’s next?

 “Democracy is no longer the only game in town.” In this short sentence, David Runciman states the most important political fact of our time. When Winston Churchill wrote in 1947 that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, he did so in a context in which the alternatives were Nazism and fascism, which had recently been defeated, and the Soviet Union, which was consolidating its tyrannical hold over half of Europe. Seventy years later, it is no longer obvious that democracy is always the least bad form of government. Runciman explains:

Churchill was only half right. Democracy remains the least worst option for many of us, for now. But it is not the least worst option for everyone… The 21st century is likely to see Western democracy confronted by a rival political system that will vary from place to place and will occasionally stretch to include the edges of our politics. The temptations are real, even if the alternative is unrealistic for most Western societies.

The uncertainties surrounding democracy have two dimensions, one domestic and the other global. Internally democracies are faced by varieties of what is loosely described as populism – the rejection of established political elites and their policies. Externally democracy is confronted by the fact that dictatorship may be accepted and supported as legitimate by large majorities in countries where it prevails.

Democracy has overcome both of these challenges in the past. In the US, following a financial crash in 1893, William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic Party and stood three times as its presidential candidate with a populist message and campaign methods very like Donald Trump’s. Bypassing mainstream media, Jennings used local news outlets and pamphlets to cast professional politicians – including his own party’s – as the enemy. His campaigns failed, and the next Democrat to reach the White House, in 1913, was a former president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson. In interwar Europe fascism and Nazism commanded large majorities in many countries, not least among the continent’s middle classes. That did not prevent stable democracies developing in western Europe after the Second World War. So why is the present crisis of democracy different from any in the past?

Runciman points to three fundamental differences. First, political violence is less of a threat in democracies; lurking on the fringes of politics, it lacks the capacity to overthrow governments. Second, threats of disaster paralyse rather than galvanise politics. We have become used to the nightmarish prospect of nuclear war, so that even when it seems imminent – as it did to some people during the recent Korean crisis – it has little or no effect on the democratic status quo. The danger of catastrophic climate change has had a similar lack of impact. As Runciman puts it, “Entropy replaces explosive change as the default condition of politics.” Third, information technology has transformed the conditions in which democracy operates. The media environment is a battle-ground fought over by forces elected governments neither control nor fully understand.

Pursuing these themes, Runciman explores three ways in which democracy can end: through coups, catastrophes or technological takeover. None of these is inevitable. In many cases democracy will have a long, lingering half-life. There are no solutions. Solutionism – the belief that every social evil can be removed or managed – is part of the problem democracy faces. But we can understand better the situation in which we find ourselves, and make a better job of what can be done in it. Along the way to this sober conclusion there are comments on the political applications of futurism, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, the late Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit’s argument for the ethical unimportance of personal identity and dozens of other interesting topics. Presented in pellucid prose free of the jargon of academic political science, How Democracy Ends is a strikingly readable and richly learned contribution to understanding the world today. If it does not always answer the questions it asks, this is surely one of the most luminously intelligent books on politics to have been published for many years.

Runciman begins with a story. Watching the inauguration of Donald Trump on 20 January 2017, in a draughty lecture hall in Cambridge, where he is head of the Department of Politics and International Studies, professor of politics and a fellow of Trinity Hall, he observed how the mood of the students who had gathered there changed when Trump started speaking. Initially almost festive, it turned suddenly to one of fear and foreboding:

The speech Trump gave was shocking… He bemoaned “the rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation… the crime and gangs and drugs”. In calling for a rebirth of national pride, he reminded his audience that “we all bleed the same red blood of patriots”. It sounded like a thinly veiled threat. Above all, he cast doubt on the basic idea of representative government, which is that the citizens entrust elected officials to take decisions on their behalf… Was he going to mobilise popular anger against any professionals who now stood in his way? Who would be able to stop him? When he had finished speaking, he was greeted in the lecture hall back in Cambridge by a stunned silence. We weren’t the only ones taken aback. Trump’s predecessor but one in the presidency, George W Bush, was heard to mutter as he left the stage: “That was some weird shit.”

None of this suggests Trump is about to install fascism in America. The US is not Weimar Germany, and it will take more than the digital revolution to destroy American democracy. Near the end of the book, Runciman makes a prediction: “On 20 January 2053 there will be a ceremony in Washington, DC to mark the inauguration of the duly elected president of the United States… American democracy will survive the presidency of Donald Trump.” It is a reasonable enough bet. The question, though, is what sort of democracy America will then be.

Runciman says very little about populism or illiberal democracy, and what he does say is dismissive. Defining populism as “the idea that democracy has been stolen by the elites”, he writes that illiberal democracy is “not an alternative to democracy. It is simply the populist distortion of it. Democratic authoritarians like the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán – who describes himself as an ‘illiberal democrat’ – take their inspiration from Vladimir Putin rather than the Chinese Communist Party. Democracy is talked up, stripped of its liberal credentials… As a result it is barely democracy at all… This is a parody of democracy rather than a replacement for it.” Unusually, Runciman is here endorsing a consensus view: illiberal democracy is impossible, a contradiction in terms, or else just a fraud.

It is an odd stance for a scholar immersed in the history of political ideas. It is only in the last few decades that liberalism and democracy have been conflated. There has long been an influential tradition of illiberal democratic thought, articulated in 18th-century France by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who represented democracy as the pursuit of the general will by a semi-divine legislator – a conception the great French liberal Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) considered dangerous enough to attack relentlessly. Later in the 19th century, liberals beginning with John Stuart Mill devoted much of their effort to working out how liberalism and democracy could be reconciled. In the 20th century, Lenin’s scorn for bourgeois democracy owed something to Rousseau’s account of the corruption of civil society, while the French Enlightenment thinker’s conception of the legislator was one of the inspirations of the leader of the Islamist revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

It is unlikely that Trump has ever heard of Rousseau, or would give a damn about him if he had. But if democracy in America were to face a second Trump administration it could emerge at the end as a caricature of Rousseau’s illiberal ideal. Trump would do all he could to neutralise the judiciary, so that it no longer functioned as a meaningful curb on executive authority but instead became the servant of the presidential whim. Of course this would not be American democracy as we have known it. Elections might be rigged to a degree; freedom to oppose the incumbent administration could be curbed. But nor would it be a rerun of interwar European dictatorship. It would be democracy of the illiberal kind that can now be found in Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary. If Runciman fails to take illiberal democracy seriously, one reason may be that he regards Xi Jinping’s China as the only credible alternative to Western democracy. Unlike Putin’s Russia, China does not need to display enmity to the West. It can outpace the West through economic expansion and technological innovation, while steadily acquiring key Western assets.

Far more than Russia – with its economy stuck in the fossil fuel era – China can deliver growing prosperity to its population. Both are authoritarian regimes. At the same time, both are types of popular government that depend ultimately on majority consent. In contrast to pre-modern regimes whose legitimacy derived from authority inherited from the past, they survive by promising a future better than the past. If this promise is no longer believed, they crumble away or morph into another kind of regime. The same is true of liberal democracies, which are subject to the same imperatives.

There is more to populism than material grievances. But an important strand in the revolt against Western ruling elites is a perception of their economic incompetence. Not only did they fail to anticipate the financial crash, they failed even to recognise such a thing was possible. When the crash happened, a great depression was avoided by expansionary monetary policies; but the result has been a massive surge in debt and asset prices, which leaves the system as fragile as before, if not more so. Of what value, then, is the expert knowledge on which liberal ruling elites have based their legitimacy?

Runciman has some sympathy for “epistocracy” – rule by the knowers, the system of government advocated by Plato in ancient Greece: “In the age of Trump and [Narendra] Modi, climate change and nuclear weapons, epistocracy has teeth again.” But he draws back from advocating it. Epistocracy is a reckless idea, he thinks, because democracy is better at avoiding disastrously bad solutions than a system that puts power in the hands of those who can supposedly identify the best.

To my mind, epistocracy has teeth when the knowledge in question is grounded in experience – practical and historical. On this basis, the professional military has been rightly sceptical regarding the succession of disastrous wars launched by Western governments from Iraq onwards. If a larger conflagration has been avoided in Syria, much of the credit goes to knowledgeable minds in the Pentagon.

But who any longer gives any credence to theories of globalisation that provided a spurious rationale for the almost forgotten “Washington consensus”? Who does not recognise that much of “social science” is actually little more than coagulated ideology? If highly educated people had more votes than those without university degrees – as JS Mill advocated – we would end up being governed by the intellectual fads of a generation ago. The case against epistocracy in the West today is that, in practice, it means rule by defunct ideologues.

This brings us back to China. The Chinese system may not be as meritocratic as it claims. Doubtless nepotism and corruption are rife. But the ruling elite has the advantage over its Western counterparts in not being hobbled by ideological correctness. If China is the only world power with a consistently rationalist foreign policy – one based on pursuing achievable goals by effective means – it is because it has not imbibed the liberal ideology that dictates thinking in the West, which condemns realism in foreign policy as immoral. Of course this freedom from ideology might not last. Xi could turn to inflaming nationalism if the economy falters. But at present – in its dealings with Trump, for example – China is the only adult in the room.

The most striking feature of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that China is barely mentioned. Bizarrely, neither the country nor its current leader appears in the index. Levitsky and Ziblatt might defend this omission on the grounds that their subject is how democracies succumb to authoritarianism and China is not a democracy. But India does not appear either, despite the fact that many observers see clear signs of populism in Modi’s approach to democracy. The result of these omissions is an oddly parochial study. Part of the crisis of democracy is the realisation that it is no longer the wave of the future. If China keeps raising living standards, tackles environmental problems and manages the social costs of automation, the legitimacy of liberal democracy will be badly shaken.

Both of them professors of government at Harvard, the authors are at pains to make their analysis international. Erdogan’s Turkey, Pinochet’s Chile and Fujimori’s Peru are examined as case studies in democratic failure, along with countries such as Finland, where a fascist movement was seen off successfully in the 1930s. The result is an informative analysis that will help readers recognise the signs of creeping authoritarianism.

But the book’s limited international references serve the authors’ central focus, which is on the Trump administration. When they consider what “we” can do to resist the threat to democracy, “we” means liberal Americans. America is not the centre of the world, however, and the fate of democracy is unlikely to be decided there. As Runciman writes, “Trump’s presidency could be a vast distraction from the greater threats to democracy elsewhere.”

Needing to meet the demands of those they govern, all modern states are forms of popular government. Even Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, must show it is delivering a better future – hence the grandiose reform programme currently being promoted by its ambitious new leader, Mohammed bin Salman. There is nothing special about liberal democracy, and no guarantee that it will survive the demands that modern populations make on those who rule them.

John Gray’s latest book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

How Democracy Ends
David Runciman
Profile, 256pp, £14.99

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Viking, 320pp, £16.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran