David Runciman talks about democracy and how the fate of our democracy is different to those that have existed before ours. There might still be hope!


Illustration by We Are Cognitive

Politics – by David Runciman

Societies that fail to adapt to the challenges they face even­tually fall apart. The planet is littered with monuments to political systems that finally ran out of road, leaving only their relics behind. The Parthenon in Athens stands as a testament to the passing glory of ancient Athenian democ­racy, which flourished for two hundred years and then died at the hands of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. The huge monolithic stone heads on Easter Island were produced by a flourishing island community as symbols of the power and purpose of its leading inhabitants; the competition to build bigger and better statues eventu­ally used up the island’s natural resources, resulting in star­vation and ruin. Lenin’s tomb in Moscow once stood as the focal point for global communism, honouring the man who had devised a politics that was going to conquer the future; now that the future is here, his mausoleum has become just another tourist trap. Are the liberal democracies that Fuku­yama said were the end of history destined to go the same way? Will the Capitol in Washington sooner or later join the list of magnificent ruins?

There are two reasons to think that the fate of democ­racy may be different. The first is that the most success­ful states of the present have access to resources that no previous society could match. We are enormously richer, better-educated, better-informed, healthier and longer-lived than any human beings have ever been. We can draw on vast and sophisticated networks of communication. We keep inventing new stuff at a prodigious rate. The pace of change is only going to accelerate. It is hard to see how soci­eties like these could get stuck for long.

The second reason is that modern democracy is inher­ently adaptable. Democracies are good at avoiding the worst political outcomes because democratic citizens are so irri­table and impatient, constantly pushing for something a little better than what they have. When democracies make mistakes – which they frequently do – they don’t plough on with them to the bitter end. They change course. The politics of restraint has proved good at correcting for the most serious errors of judgement that politicians can make. Bad leaders get kicked out of office; slightly less bad leaders replace them. Slowly, painfully, the system rights itself. Autocratic regimes, which are often better at taking snap decisions, are worse at spotting when those decisions are the wrong ones. Dictators and tyrants are the ones who lead their people over a cliff.

However, there are other reasons for thinking that these might be false consolations. The first is that the democra­cies are not masters of their own fate. Our world is now so interconnected that failure in one place can lead to a cascade of disastrous consequences for everyone. Contem­porary Denmark is as comfortable a place to live as human beings have ever found. But Denmark would be powerless to protect itself from disastrous mismanagement some­where else on the planet. Even the most powerful states are too dependent on each other to be confident that they can be immunised from each other’s mistakes. The United States and China are competing experiments in forms of technocratic government. The democratic version, which combines elections with financial expertise – professional politicians with central bankers – is the more adaptable. The autocratic version, which combines one-party rule with managerial expertise – party cadres with engineers – is the more decisive. The problem with the adaptable system is that it can be indecisive. The problem with the decisive system is that it can struggle to adapt. When either of these experiments goes wrong, the knock-on effects will be felt everywhere. Another financial crash in the US or a political revolution in China would have consequences that are very hard to predict. In the worst-case scenario, the two systems could still find themselves at war. If that happens, all bets are off. Even in Denmark.

The second reason to be worried is that history may not be a reliable guide. The challenges that states face in the twenty-first century are different from those they have faced in the past. The difference is in the time-scale. The advan­tage of democratic adaptability depends on there being time to adapt. That may not be the case for the most serious threats democracies are likely to face. In some respects time is too short. One of the striking features of the financial crash of 2008 was just how quickly politicians had to act to stave off disaster. They got through that one by the skin of their teeth, but there is no guarantee that next time they will be so lucky. Meanwhile, the consequences of the crash will be playing out for a generation or more. Recovery has been slower than for any previous recession, slower even than the Great Depression in the early 1930s. A large cohort of young people across the Western world is out of employment, with no prospect of finding a job any time soon. Austerity and the paying down of public and private debt are liable to continue for the foreseeable future. Voters are told that in the long run they will benefit. Yet democracy still works to the timetable of the electoral cycle, with its premium on regular, incremental improvements in people’s standard of living. The time-scales are out of joint. Politicians have a few hours to save the world; voters have to wait decades to see the benefits. It is not clear how democracy will adapt to this challenge.

The most acute version of the conundrum relates to climate change and the threat of environmental catastrophe. The long lag before the effects of climate change will be felt make it very difficult for elected politicians to take pre-emp­tive action, conscious as they are that the people who pay the price won’t be the people who see the benefits. Yet if we never take pre-emptive action, and if the gloomier scenarios predicted by the current science turn out to be correct, then the consequences are likely to catch us unawares. At some point, the long-term threat of environmental degradation will reveal itself as an immediate disaster: a massive flood, a calamitous harvest failure, the mass movement of peoples, another war. At that point democratic adaptability will kick in. But by then it may be too late. Autocratic regimes like China might be able to take more decisive action in the present to deal with the long-term effects of climate change. China’s rulers do not have to worry about getting re-elected. So if China’s technocrats decide to green a Chinese city, they can, within practical limits, make it happen. However, Chinese technocracy won’t resolve climate change on its own. And when the consequences of democratic inaction reveal themselves in the future, the Chinese political system may be insufficiently adaptable to cope.

The final problem is that democratic adaptability can morph into democratic complacency. We have reached the point where there is good historical evidence that democ­racies eventually rise to meet the challenges they face. The transition from Hobbes’s world to our world is a story of the successful adaptation by inclusive states to whatever history could throw at them. Democracy survived the Great Depression. It saw off fascism. It outlasted communism. It eventually enfranchised almost all its citizens. Violence fell away. Prosperity spread. Democracies have not always responded to threats and injustices in a timely fashion, but they have usually got there in the end. It is tempting to assume that this process can continue indefinitely. We will get our act together when we need to.

In late October 2013, the US Congress shut down the Federal government as part of an intractable and poi­sonously partisan dispute over the funding of President Obama’s healthcare reforms. It looked like a recklessly cava­lier act: politicians choosing to pull the plug on government because they can’t agree on an important piece of legisla­tion. The causes of the growing partisanship and rancour in American politics are many. But one of them must be this: politicians behave so cavalierly because they think the system can survive it. They don’t believe that they have really pulled the plug on government. American democracy has got through much worse in the past and survived. So it’s assumed it can survive this. When the dust settles, the system will adapt. And perhaps it will. But this is brink­manship that imagines the real brink is always some way off. You can flirt with disaster because it is only flirting. No American politician wants to renege on America’s debt or stop paying the bills. They threaten to do it only because they believe it will never happen.

This is politics as a game of chicken. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become fatal. Flirting with disaster at a time of rapid change and increasing global interconnectivity risks meeting with disaster just when you least expect it. The US government may believe it will always honour its debts in the end. But its creditors, which include the Chinese government, may get tired of all the games. China’s technocrats could choose to pull the plug themselves by looking for somewhere else to park their cash. Then the US is in real trouble. Cavalier democratic politicians can easily lose control of events. Relying on adaptability to save them only makes it more likely that they will eventually hit the rocks.

None of this means democracy is doomed. Nothing in politics is pre-ordained. There are still plenty of grounds for optimism in a world that is better off than it has ever been, in which poverty as well as violence is on the retreat and where technology promises limitless new opportuni­ties. The threat of catastrophe remains real, however. Things could still go terribly wrong. Relying on technology to save us will not be enough. We need to recognise the risks posed by global interconnectivity, by the time-lags between our present actions and their long-term consequences, and by our growing complacency about what politics can achieve. Given the size of those challenges, the insti­tutions of the state will almost certainly have to be scaled up to match them as well as being scaled down to prevent them from becoming too remote. This will involve difficult choices and dangerous moments. Nothing about it will be easy. But it can’t be done by stealth or by crossing our fingers. It can only be done through politics.

Politics still matters.

David Runciman is a British political scientist who teaches political theory at Cambridge University. This article is based on his most recent book Politics, published by Profile Books in paperback and as an enhanced, full animated Ebook.