The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, by David Runciman

A. W. Purdue on the risky belief that participatory government can always muddle through any crisis

December 5, 2013

Almost a quarter of a century ago, the Western democracies were celebrating their victory in the Cold War, and Francis Fukuyama would supply the fanfare with his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which saluted the final, irreversible triumph of liberal democracy. Today, that euphoria has been replaced by worries about the future of the established democratic states. Their military might is confronting the asymmetric threat of terrorism, they seem financially incontinent as they struggle to balance their budgets, and many institutions of political life and civil society appear to be in decline – as, all the while, Chinese state capitalism presents a new, more challenging, form of autocratic rival. In this sharply perceptive analysis of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, David Runciman argues that if we are not yet at the end of history and able to trust in a democratic future, it is not because Fukuyama was wrong about the virtues of liberal democracy, but because he was, on some points at least, right.

History, Runciman writes, shows “that democracies can deal with whatever is thrown at them”; they can win wars, handle economic crises and outperform and outlast rival systems of government. It is, however, this very success that leads to the “confidence trap” that could prove their undoing. His survey of the way that established democracies survived threats from autocracies during the 20th century enables him to point to the strengths that have given them their capacity for survival; at the same time, he is acutely aware of the obverse, the weaknesses of democracies that have so many times nearly led to disaster. Democracies have “muddled through”, but remain overconfident that their inherent merits will always enable them to do so.

Democracy, in the pages of The Confidence Trap, comes close to being synonymous with American democracy, and if Runciman does not see the US as democracy’s only model, he clearly sees it as the salient one, as the state that most emphatically cast aside autocracy, aristocracy and oligarchy. Appositely, he finds his fugleman for democracy in Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, who at first disapproved of the noisy, untidy society and political system he found in early 19th-century America, but then warmed to their virtues. While he continued to have reservations, particularly on the danger of the tyranny of the majority and the vulgarity of elections, those “fake crises” with their “ritualised hysteria”, he considered that democratic life, with all its messiness, had a power and vitality that no rival system could match. However, he worried about democracy’s ability to deal with crises. Its strengths typically showed themselves in the long term – including the ability to adapt, experiment and recover from mistakes – while more autocratic forms of government were better suited to making swift, firm decisions in times of crisis.

De Tocqueville’s analysis of the ability of democratic states to handle crises supplies the structure for Runciman’s examination of some critical years in the 20th and 21st centuries: 1918, the year that brought victory over autocratic Germany and the beginning of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to remodel the world; 1933, when in the midst of a global economic crisis the World Economic Conference saw the US and the European democracies apparently floundering as totalitarian states boasted of their supposedly superior command economies; and 1947, when the US shouldered the burden of protecting Western Europe from the Soviet threat. These studies illustrate the paradox that the very characteristics that made democracies effective were also weaknesses, just as, as Runciman argues, “the grounds for democratic optimism were the source of de Tocqueville’s fundamental worries about democracy”. Democrats, all too ready to believe that history was on their side, were not only slow to spot crises but had a feverish propensity to overreact to minor setbacks. Although de Tocqueville thought democracies would find it hard to make the firm decisions necessary in a crisis, nevertheless if a war or a recession persisted, democracy’s adaptability and capacity for experimentation would give it an advantage over autocracy. Subsequent history bore this out: democracies had the capacity for survival in the long term – provided, of course, that they were not destroyed in the short term.

Runciman has written a brilliant book in which both the prose and the ideas sparkle, but he arguably neglects factors other than political structures when evaluating the capacity of the US and its allies to withstand critical pressures. Were the crises he discusses primarily tests of political systems? Many historians would argue, for instance, that Germany’s defeat in the First World War was attributable to the Allies’ overwhelming superiority in terms of population and economic resources. The nature of democracies’ governments is not their sole salient characteristic, even though it is a common denominator and may be the most important one. Here, of course, the qualification “liberal capitalist” or “free market” is obviously essential, as it is the liberal element in democracies’ constitutions that provides the bulwark against the tyranny of the majority that de Tocqueville was so concerned about. Indeed, it is arguable that these states’ ability to survive crises lies as much in their liberalism, or their free-market economic systems, as in their democratic structures. The Cold War, for instance, can be seen either as a battle between democracy and authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, or between capitalism and Marxist socialism. The economic factor takes on an interesting new dimension when we consider China, with its considerable degree of economic freedom and consumer choice, as the new autocratic rival to liberal democracy.

Although he is far more alert than US neoconservatives to the difficulties of transplanting democracy, Runciman’s emphasis on “established democracies” means that he spends little time on a consideration of the context for it. Are the democratic societies he discusses stable because they are democracies or because they are cohesive societies whose members have more in common than they have at variance? It could be argued that democracy is only really suited to societies in which voters are prepared to lose, because the losing side is not in danger of losing everything. Where there are great ethnic or religious divisions – and Runciman makes little mention of religion – this is not the case.

Such criticisms do not, however, detract from the importance of this insightful history of the established democracies and its analysis of their contemporary problems. The dangers of overconfidence and complacency that Runciman discerns in the crises of the past provide a disturbing background to the challenges of the world economic crisis that began in 2008. Yes, democracies have muddled through, but the belief that they can always do so may lead to disaster when one day they face a crisis far too serious for muddling. The recent imbroglio in Washington with a US president and Congress unable to agree on a budget is certainly a sobering example of potential disaster, even if the financial markets seem, as yet, complacent.

Democracies continue to have many disadvantages when weighed against their totalitarian rivals: electorates inevitably demand “jam today”, low taxation and high public spending and are rarely prepared for money to be spent on defence until it is too late. As Runciman observes: “The knowledge that democracies can adapt encourages delay; delay encourages drift; fear of drift encourages precipitate action; precipitate action encourages mistakes; mistakes encourage caution.” Nevertheless, democracy has weathered storms to date; we must, with the author, be prepared to give it two cheers.

The author

“I don’t know if it counts as a hobby, but I like writing about sport, especially the seamy side: drugs, racism, money,” says David Runciman, professor in political thought at the University of Cambridge. “I find it hard to resist comparisons between politics and sport. Sport is good for showing up the absurdity of politics and politics is good for showing up the seriousness of sport.”

Runciman was born and grew up in St John’s Wood in North London. “I don’t think it’s the kind of place that does much to shape you,” he says, “although it was near to both the Abbey Road Beatles crossing and Lords Cricket ground.”

He now lives in Cambridge with his wife Bee Wilson, “a food writer (a much more successful writer than I am), plus three children, aged 14, 10 and 4, and one pet hamster. All other pets are banned by me: the ones I am not allergic to I am frightened of.”

Runciman’s father, Garry Runciman, is a historical sociologist and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; his mother, Ruth Runciman, is former chair of the UK Mental Heath Commission, a founder of the Prison Reform Trust and former chair of the National Aids Trust.

Of his childhood, Runciman recalls: “I don’t think I was especially studious: I watched a lot of TV and listened to the radio more than I read books. My father combined being an academic with a full-time business career, which showed how it’s possible to be a serious scholar while doing something else. My mother was very involved in public policy work, which showed that academic life is not the be-all and end-all. I think those are both good lessons.”

His father, mother, and paternal grandfather and great-grandfather all attended Cambridge. “My mother came to Cambridge from South Africa in the 1950s, which was not a traditional thing to do (especially not for a woman),” he notes.

Asked if he had ever considered studying elsewhere, Runciman confesses: “I was never put under any pressure to come here [to Cambridge], I just liked the sound of it (I guess I did hear quite a lot about it). I know that’s not very adventurous or imaginative. What I most like about Cambridge now is that it’s a very nice place to live, especially with children. That makes it hard to leave.”

Sir John Major recently criticised the disproportionately large and influential role played by the wealthy and the privately educated in UK politics. Asked for his response to the former prime minister’s observations, Runciman begins by recalling: “I went to Eton at the same time as David Cameron. He was pointed out to me when he was about 16 as someone who wanted to be prime minister, so when he actually became prime minister it did seem like an absurdly smooth ride to the top.

“I agree with John Major: it shocks me that the political class has become so narrow and so samey. Too few other kinds of people seem interested in doing politics. Since I come from the same background, perhaps I am not the best person to complain about it. But sharing that background I am convinced that being ruled by so many people like me is not a good idea.” 

Of his own political ambitions, Runciman says he has none. “Those who study and write about politics often get asked why they don’t do it instead of just writing about it. My answer is that I have never found a political party that I wanted to commit myself to (and you do have to be committed). Plus, I think I lack the people skills (although that doesn’t put off some politicians).”

Runciman’s mother’s engagement at the highest level with issues of social policy – including chairing an independent inquiry into the misuse of drugs – has arguably highlighted the difficulty in enacting evidence-based reforms when media-led public opinion, and short-term political considerations, may be against them. Asked if her experience has made him feel more or less positive about the democratic process, he says: “Her experience, particularly over more than two decades of trying to reform Britain’s outdated and ineffective drug laws, has not been good for feeling positive about our democratic system.

However, he acknowledges, “It’s not all bad: even the Daily Mail has had its moments of taking the issue seriously. But what doesn’t seem to happen is all the people needed to make change happen taking it seriously at the same time: someone always has the incentive to talk nonsense. That’s democracy.”

He is currently working with Richard J. Evans and John Naughton on Conspiracy and Democracy: History, Political Theory and Internet Research, a Leverhulme Trust-funded research project. Runciman says: “The trouble with most conspiracy theories is that they do suppose an implausible amount of coordination and foresight on the part of people in power. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real conspiracies.

“Often incompetence and chaos at the top produce elaborate conspiracies to cover-up what’s gone wrong (think Watergate or any of the subsequent ‘gates’ right up to the present). The point of our project is not to debunk conspiracy theories. It’s to understand how real conspiracies and implausible conspiracy theories co-exist and feed off each other, especially in democracies.”

Asked which he would choose if he could magically acquire any ability or skill that he does not presently have, Runciman suggests: “Maybe to remember the names of people I meet: that way I could go into politics.”

Karen Shook

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

By David Runciman
Princeton University Press, 408pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691148687
Published 20 November 2013

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