Recklessness and Resignation: Democracy in a Time of Crisis

By Daniel CohenJanuary 28, 2014

Recklessness and Resignation: Democracy in a Time of Crisis

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

ON JANUARY 10, 1979 James Callaghan, Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, returned from a summit in Guadeloupe to a country that seemed to be in crisis. A week earlier, lorry drivers had gone on strike, shutting down petrol distribution and supply of most of the Britain’s goods. It didn’t help that it was the coldest winter of the decade, one that came to be known as the “winter of discontent.” When Callaghan arrived at London Heathrow he wasted no time and held a press conference at the airport. Asked by a reporter, “What is your general approach, in view of the mounting chaos in the country at the moment?” he responded:

I promise you that if you look at it from outside — and perhaps you’re taking rather a parochial view at the moment — I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is a mounting chaos. You know, we’ve had strikes before, we’ve come close the brink before…

That’s not what everyone remembers Callaghan saying. Instead, in a phrase that has become synonymous with political complacency, he will forever be associated with the final three words of the headline in the next day’s Sun newspaper, words that he never uttered: “Crisis? What crisis?”

Callaghan was, to an extent, right — 34 years later, the winter of discontent is regarded as a difficult time that presented Margaret Thatcher with a perfect political opportunity, rather than one of genuine threat to Britain. But his difficulties are a reminder of the importance of perceptions in a crisis — if something feels like a crisis, it is effectively a crisis. Amidst the ebb and flow of such moments  in fundamentally stable democracies, each new one can seem unprecedented.


If the din of certain commentators is to be believed, democracy is in trouble today. For Joshua Kurlantzick, it is a time of “democracy in retreat,” as he called his recent book chronicling the “worldwide decline of representative government.” Philip Coggan, a respected columnist at The Economist, has a narrower focus in The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy. He’s worried about Europe and the United States, where he identifies low turnout, the rise of extremist parties, growing inequality, and ageing populations as a few of the many perils for our democratic stability.

For today’s doomsayers, there are historical analogies to be mined, namely the 1930s and 1970s. But no matter how alarming or alarmist these are, they are also a reminder that democracies have managed to defeat — or at least outlast — fascism (with help from the Soviet Union) and state communism (with help from the Soviet Union). To truly frighten readers, you have to convince them that this time will be different.

David Runciman should be an ideal guide to such territory. He is a trenchant commentator on current affairs and a historian of political thought who, in his books and his articles in the London Review of Books, has revealed himself to be a gifted explainer. A professor at Cambridge, he has a canny sense of how political power operates at its highest levels and in his exposition of political theory he is unfailingly clear and direct. Runciman’s prose is conversational, if elegantly so — it is no surprise that he is a fluent lecturer — and characterised by a wry restraint.

Runciman’s previous two books, The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order (2006) and Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond (2008) seem on the surface to distinguish between his two kinds of writing. The former brought together LRB articles from the period around the Iraq war, focusing on the key politicians of the period, especially Tony Blair, along with pieces on the theorists trying to make sense of that new world. Political Hypocrisy was more of a work of history, taking in Anglo-American thinkers, writers, and politicians from the past four centuries.

Yet all of Runciman’s writing has at least one eye on the present — Political Hypocrisy considered contemporary manifestations of political hypocrisy, including in the presidential election campaign taking place at the time — while his analysis of contemporary politics is informed by and makes a case for a historical perspective. Such an outlook can helpfully dampen outrage: Runciman urges us not to “assume that there is more hypocrisy around than ever before; there is just more political exposure, in an age of 24-hour news, which makes hypocrisy easier to find.”

In its ambition, The Confidence Trap feels like a summation of Runciman’s work so far. It contains the characteristic Runcimanian ingredients but on a greater scale: the book promises to be a global history of democracy in crisis from the end of World War I to the present. It is the closest Runciman has come to writing straightforward history, with moments of crisis considered both as political history (the motivations and decisions of the various political actors) and intellectual history (the hopes and fears of different writers and commentators). Runciman has identified seven of these moments: 1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989, and 2008. There are obvious omissions (1938, 1940, 1968, 2001), which Runciman acknowledges, but the choices are not meant to be definitive. These crises “reflect some of the uncertainty we feel at present,” writes Runciman; together, they “form part of a sequence in which various patterns emerge.”


The story starts with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Runciman calls “the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis.” It is a telling choice: like Runciman, Tocqueville is a calm thinker who shuns extremes and easy pieties. Central to The Confidence Trap is Tocqueville’s idea of “democratic fatalism.” In democracies, citizens feel confident that the form of government will survive, and consequently they “follow the course of their destiny weakly rather than make a sudden and energetic effort when needed to address it.” But as Runciman notes, while this often engenders passivity, it can also have the opposite effect:

It was part of Tocqueville’s genius to recognise that democratic fatalism went along with recklessness as well as resignation. What’s more, he understood that it could sometimes be hard to tell the difference between the two.

For Runciman, recklessness and resignation serve a purpose. In the history of democracy that he wants to tell, “good news and bad news feed off each other.”

This is the democracy trap: “You cannot have the good of democratic progress without the bad of democratic drift.” Runciman insists that, for democracies, mistakes are survived but they are not learned from; this encourages complacency and guarantees future mistakes. In a signature chiastic flourish, he writes: “The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as repeated failures are a precondition for its ongoing success.”

Crisis can therefore be useful — and not just for the politicians who stand to profit from it. In 1962, West Germany’s defense minister, Franz Josef Strauss, signed off on a raid on the office of the magazine Der Spiegel with the consent of Konrad Adenauer, the country’s chancellor. The resulting scandal forced Strauss’s resignation and an agreement from Adenauer to stand down the next year (he was 86 at the time). In the first decade and a half of West Germany, Adenauer justified his strong-man rule as necessary to nurturing democracy at a time when it could ill afford a crisis. But as Runciman notes, “it turned out that a crisis was precisely what West German democracy needed at this stage of its development”: it enabled debate and brought a new generation of intellectuals into the public conversation.

The years that Runciman has chosen are often surprising and characteristic of his counterintuitive approach. Few would argue that 1933 was a bad year for democracy, but for Runciman, it is an example of how we see such events through hindsight’s distorted lens. He shows how, for contemporaries, the event that exemplified the failure of the democracies was not Hitler’s election as chancellor but the failure of the World Economic Conference in London, seen as “a final chance for the world’s leading economies to arrest the slide into chaos.” At a time when admiration for fascism and Stalinism could be found in the mainstream (Runciman quotes Keynes hailing both of “these magnificent experiments”), the inability of the conference’s attendees to come to an agreement seemed to confirm the fundamental ineffectiveness of liberal democracy — a criticism that recurred throughout the century.

Even more unexpected is Runciman’s devoting of a chapter to 1989. Today, the year is commonly regarded as one of democracy’s great victories and a high-water mark of democratic triumphalism: the time of walls falling and history ending. Runciman reminds us that the intellectual atmosphere at the time was in fact much gloomier — the 1980s were “an extension of the 1970s rather than a preview of the 1990s.” The non-fiction blockbusters of the time — Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind — were marked by pessimism and familiar fears about the decline of the west. Francis Fukuyama, for all his misplaced confidence in the victory of liberal democracy, was not especially cheery about the world it would bring: the end of history would, he lamented in his famous article of that year, be “a very sad time,” in which there would be “neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

Still, pessimism aside, what makes the year a crisis? “A crisis is a point of rupture,” Runciman insists, “when the present asserts itself in the face of the past.” When so much changes so quickly, “suddenly the future is on the line.” This may be so but it’s not the sense in which crisis is principally understood elsewhere in the book, and it reinforces a sense that Runciman is riffing on his subject rather than constructing a tightly structured argument and narrative — he has picked 1989 to make a broader point about hindsight and the unpredictability of change. It also points to a recurring tension in the history of democracy, one that manifests itself awkwardly here.

In many ways, the political and intellectual history of the subject tell two very different stories, and they don’t always feel well integrated. The first, as Runciman notes, is “a success story” — so far. Yet the second is “preoccupied with the prospect of failure.” There is a recurring cast of grandees, often placed in neat oppositions —Keynes versus Friedrich Hayek, George Kennan versus Walter Lippmann — and throughout the century they fret and brood over the mistakes being made by democracies. They come in and out of fashion, and it’s not always clear if anyone — in government and elsewhere — is listening, or if they’re listening closely enough.

An exception to this comes in 1962. The unlikely hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis was Lippmann, who suggested in an article that the Americans remove their nuclear weapons from Turkey in exchange for the Russians leaving Cuba. This caught Krushchev’s eye: he thought Lippmann was speaking on behalf of the Kennedy administration, although his influence had in fact dwindled, and took the inadvertent bait.

The chapter on 1962 finds Runciman at his best. Although he is no natural storyteller, he has a brilliant feel for how political personalities interact — how they negotiate the options available to them and make decisions. The Cuban Missile Crisis is an ideal episode for such an approach: it unfolded so quickly that it was a matter of “two cloistered political elites, sweating it out in smoky rooms, groping in the dark for signals from the other side.” Yet democracy played a part in a way that aptly brings to light its weaknesses and strengths. Despite the gravity of the situation, President Kennedy remained concerned about the upcoming midterm elections. Although this seems to exemplify the short-sightedness of democratic politics, Runciman thinks it gave Kennedy a great advantage: knowing that public opinion limited his options facilitated decision-making and “made him harder to outmaneuver.”

In a book about established democracies, with a consequent focus on western nations, Runciman’s analysis of 1962 is genuinely global and comparative: it goes on to consider the Spiegel affair in West Germany and the Sino-Indian War, while also taking in France, Britain, and Israel. He makes clever connections — between the stagnant political cultures of different democracies at the time, for example.

Yet there is something strangely elusive about democracy in The Confidence Trap. For Runciman, one of its greatest assets is its flexibility and its adaptability. At moments of great need democracies can actually behave like autocracies, as they did near the end of World War I. Despite its in-built tendency to drift, democracy is depicted as fundamentally restless, dynamic — ever shifting and experimenting. In Runciman’s hands, it takes on an almost mystical character. He tells us how Woodrow Wilson made the mistake of attempting to “pin democracy down, and it got away from him.” 

If democracy’s success has been inadvertent, its fundamental strengths invisible, it can seem as if we should just sit back and let the magic do its work. Runciman is not an idealist — throughout his work, he has stressed the importance of outcomes over intentions, and here the relationship between the two seems weaker than ever. The Cold War was won by “democracies that did not know what they were up to,” “people whose attention was elsewhere.” Following their example sounds more like resignation than recklessness, interchangeable as they may be, and it also takes Runciman surprisingly close to a kind of democratic triumphalism, however much he disavows it. He insists that democracy’s survival so far doesn’t guarantee its future, and that as it endures, citizens of democracies can’t help but become more complacent. It’s hard, however, to read this book and feel less confident about democracy’s staying power.

That’s one shortcoming of a historical perspective: it risks encouraging a seen-it-all-before attitude. It’s nice to know that, compared to the rise of fascism or the threat of mutually assured destruction, most of our current challenges seem manageable. But putting faith in democracy’s trusty inadvertence isn’t much comfort when our complacency is responsible for many of our current troubles. The other side to the inattentiveness with which, according to Runciman, the Cold War was won is a story that emerges late in this book: how in the late 70s, guided by their striving experimentalism, democracies began their march towards a neoliberal, globalized market economy. Voters, often curiously absent in Runciman’s history, “did not really know they were doing,” he writes. “Things were being done to them, and for them, and tired of what they had been putting up with for most of the decade, they put up with this instead.”

That story helps explain where we are today: societies of vast inequality and enormous corporate power. For someone like David Graeber, in The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, these are signs that the nation states we consider to be “democracies” are not even worthy of the term: in the US, he argues, “bribery has become the very basis of our system of government.” Runciman does not go so far, but he is concerned by these problems, which he has addressed intelligently in recent essays for the LRB. “The 1 percent didn’t conspire to rip everyone else off,” he wrote there in relation to the Occupy movement. “They got their way by walking through the door we left open for them.” That may be partly right, but it doesn’t suggest there’s a way to close that door, at least for now. Do we have to wait for the divisions in society to widen further — until they truly threaten democratic stability — before they are tackled effectively? And if democracies are capable of accommodating such divisions, how useful is it to emphasise how good they are at surviving, rather than what they are good for?

If many of our contemporary ills are familiar, in ways both frightening and (with hindsight’s help) reassuring, democracies may soon face a genuinely unprecedented challenge. It’s remarkable how little climate change figures in the accounts of our current doomsayers — the index to Coggan’s book has more references to campaign finance. It won’t just be a problem for democracies, of course, but it already poses familiar questions about the suitability of their style of government — with its perceived shortcomings of inefficiency, lethargy and shortsightedness — in addressing a problem of potentially world-historical significance. In “Weimar Iraq,” an essay that appears in The Politics of Good Intentions, Runciman identifies “three kinds of time at work in modern politics: news time, election time and historical time.” Democracies’ disengagement with the latter can prove helpful in scenarios like the Cuban Missile Crisis — less so when coordinating long-term reductions in carbon emissions.

Democracies do have qualities, as trumpeted in The Confidence Trap, that could be an asset: if utilized, and at the right time, their “experimental adaptability” and “collective resilience under duress” should enable them to muddle through. But in the book’s gloomiest moment, Runciman admits that this might not make the difference. Just because democracies know that they have these strengths does not mean that they will know how to exercise them at the right time. If anything, our faith in our ability to find a solution might be one of the things that stops us arriving at that solution. It is climate change that “represents the potentially fatal version of the confidence trap.” Unlike many of the pessimists in his book, Runciman doesn’t want to be proven right.


Daniel Cohen is a London-based writer.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Cohen is a London-based writer.


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