Books Books > The Confidence Trap: a history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the present

06 February 2014 | by David Runciman

The Confidence Trap: a history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the present

Share this story   

Two more cheers for the system

In his introduction to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott described life as “a predicament, not a journey”. This is true not just for you and me, but for political ideas, and for the institutions and the forms of government which they have helped to create. It is not the least of the virtues of this excellent and interesting book that David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, places democracy in this context.

Encouraged by his high regard for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – the best book ever written on this form of government – and provoked by the difficulties that today’s democracies are experiencing in dealing with war, with debt and financial crises, with the rise of China and with climate change, Runciman sketches the strengths and weaknesses of democracies against the backdrop of seven critical years: 1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989 and 2008. As he shows in his accounts of these moments of crisis for democracy, Runciman is a good historian (which is not always the case with academics whose speciality is politics); he is especially smart in evaluating the contributions to geopolitical analysis of public intellectuals like H. L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Friedrich Hayek, Allen Buchanan, Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama.

He allows himself the occasional put-down, usually directed towards vanity and intolerance, and points out where each is at his weakest. He does not, for example, blame Francis Fukuyama for the misleading title of his best-known book, The End of History and the Last Man, but he is far from convinced by the metaphor with which Fukuyama ends it. No, Runciman insists, history is not like a long wagon train strung out along a road towards the establishment of liberal democracies that will eventually arrive into town in sufficiently large numbers, with perhaps the identification of another journey just over the next hill. That “moment of truth”, Runciman asserts, will never arrive.

How does democracy measure up to the task of guiding and shaping our fortunes? Runciman misquotes Churchill’s alleged statement (made in a rather bad 1947 Commons speech about House of Lords’ reform) that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others”. Actually, Churchill only noted that “it has been said” that such was the case. Whoever made the original observation, it seems pretty accurate; as Tocqueville wrote, “[Democracy’s] faults strike one at first approach, but its qualities are only discovered at length”. Runciman draws these qualities out in his discussions of crucial moments over the last century. Democracy is messy, but while things perhaps get done less well individually than autocracies might manage, more is achieved in aggregate. Democracy can be more adaptable; it manages disappointment and even disaster better than alternative systems; it adjusts more successfully to long-term change.

India and China are often compared, with Sino-enthusiasts pointing to China’s better economic performance over the years as a mark of the superiority of its totalitarian system over India’s argumentative democracy. Yet India’s democracy has coped with ethnic, religious and linguistic differences with extraordinary elasticity. India has avoided a bamboo gulag or the sort of famine that led to the 40 million or so deaths in China in the 1960s and 1970s. Amartya Sen has pointed out that famines do not happen in democracies.

Runciman, with appropriate genuflections to Tocqueville, describes democracy’s greatest weakness as what he calls “the confidence trap”: “Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, confronted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them.” Moreover, since democracies are also competitive, they tend to give the lie to the sort of sense of urgency which would encourage compromise as the route to a quick solution. “They are comforted as they squabble by their knowledge that the system is resilient … So democracy becomes a game of chicken … Games of chicken are harmless until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal.”

In his last chapter, Runciman turns to the questions which triggered his initial concerns. Why has democracy failed to deal with the quartet of formidable issues that confront all governments today? This is the least satisfactory part of the book, as Runciman produces skimpy, if conventionally respectable, ideas about where solutions might lie. He fails to deal with the most tricky aspects of the questions he poses.

First, with a global media helping to create a global conscience, how do the democracies deal with a government like Syria which assaults its own citizens? It is easy to query a crude attachment to the universal promotion of democracy. Yet how do we manage the politics of the UN’s almost unanimous (autocracies and all) commitment to the principle of the responsibility to respect, the so-called R2P?

Second, how do we redefine welfare capitalism – the amalgam of democracy, markets and social solidarity – if the citizens of ageing democracies are not prepared to work hard enough to pay for it?

Third, can the democracies manage to adjust the global order which they played the main part in establishing, to accommodate the rise of emerging markets, above all China, which reject many of the values and assumptions on which this order was based?

Fourth, will the citizens of democracies accept the legitimacy of institutional arrangements to manage cross-border sharing of sovereignty in order to cope with issues like climate change which individual states cannot cope with on their own? How do we make these cooperative institutions, even in a region like Europe let alone throughout the world, acceptable to those whom they purport to represent and whose interests they claim to serve?

I have faith, reinforced by this admirable and very well written book, that however awesome the problems confronting us, we will somehow manage to muddle through – solving, managing and enduring as best we can. We usually do.

And what, after all, is the alternative?

Share this story

Article List

Latest Issue
Digital/PDF Version

PDF version (iPad-friendly)

Previous Issues
Tablet Subscription

Manage my subcription here