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Joshua Cohen talks to David Runciman about his new book, political action, and finding hope in the end of democracy.
Editor's Note: Considerable ink has been spilled in the past two years over the state of democracy. In the last year alone, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published How Democracies Die; more recently, Cambridge political theorist David Runciman studied How Democracy Ends. Despite the similar titles, the books are fundamentally different: Levitsky and Ziblatt identify canaries in the coalmines of twentieth-century democratic collapse, while Runciman’s book is more an exercise in political imagination than a study in comparative politics.
Runciman recently discussed these differences with Boston Review editor-in-chief Joshua Cohen. Democracy, Runciman says, could either fail while remaining intact or evolve into something different—and possibly even better. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Joshua Cohen: You say democracy is having a mid-life crisis. You also say it could fail while remaining intact, and you crystallize what that means in an epilogue, which is set on January 20, 2053. Why that date?
David Runciman: We can know nothing about the second half of the twenty-first century; it is almost unimaginable given the pace of change, but there are one or two things we can know. The one date in the calendar that seems fairly fixed is the date of the inauguration of the president of the United States, just as the date of the election is fairly fixed.
This is a drawn-out story, but as we approach an end-point, what we might find is that democracy thins, and it hollows—it doesn’t snap.
I’m pretty confident that the United States will still be holding presidential elections, not least because the United States has not missed one yet—notwithstanding civil wars, world wars, far worse economic crises than the one we’ve been through recently. So elections can keep going, and I speculate about the election of a president under a system that is still recognizably the same—a president elected by a kind of due process, at least one that most people recognize as democratic. But I play with some changes. I find it hard to believe, for example, that the political parties would still be working in the same way and intact in 2053.
In my scenario, over those thirty-five years, the challenges around technology and employment, labor, and climate—those fundamental challenges are going unaddressed, and democracy itself has a kind of hollowed out, ritual feel to it. We do the ceremonies, we recognize the ceremonies, and the substance is getting thinner and thinner.
My book is really pushing back against a lot of other books that have similar titles to mine. By calling it a mid-life crisis, what I mean is this is a drawn-out story, and we are somewhere in the middle of it. But as we approach an end-point, what we might find is that democracy thins, and it hollows—it doesn’t snap.
JC: So it doesn’t die. It ends with a whimper, and not a bang. In the epilogue, I really liked that it’s not just two parties anymore and that there has been some reform of the electoral college. You conceal the drip-drip-drip of these very minor incremental reforms so what we see is recognizable, but worse. It is more charade-like than what we have.
DR: It is meant to feel a bit like that. Implicitly there’s the thought that there have been all of these elections in between, and each one felt like the end-point or like this one final change would get us back on track—that we’d finally get a grip on this problem.
JC: So there’s an election. There’s a winner. The winner takes office. And if you’re Joseph Schumpeter, and you have a very minimal understanding of democracy, you say, “Okay! Democracy persists.”
But you say it fails while remaining intact. So what makes this a failure? What does democracy promise that it’s not delivering on? Why is the democracy of 2053 hollow?
DR: The promise that it doesn’t deliver on is meaningful change—even in the minimalist Joseph Schumpeterian definition. It is striking that a lot of our reference points of democracy pull back to the middle of the twentieth century and to people like Schumpeter. Churchill’s famous line, for example, about how democracy is worse apart from all the others. In the 1940s, the alternatives were real, and they were much worse.
But even in the Schumpeterian definition—which people caricature as a kind of salespersonship of democracy where the people are being sold fake power—even then, the change of office is meaningful, the power of office is meaningful, and things get done. It makes a huge difference who is there. The implication of my story is that the really big things we need to address—such as how our societies are run—are not being touched by this democratic change.
Democracy promises two things to people: dignity and problem-solving. These things are moving further apart: there is problem-solving going on, but it’s not happening through the expression of voice.
The relationship that we have now with Congress, for example, has started to become a relationship of not doing things. It is the inverse of meaningful change. That’s a failure. I say in my book explicitly that I think democracy promises two things to people: dignity (by way of their voice) and results. It promises problem-solving. I think the future of democracy is where these two things are moved further and further apart. There is problem-solving going on in that world, but it’s not happening through the expression of voice, which are what elections are for.
In some ways we’re living though a phase where the capacity for voice is not necessarily for dignity and recognition. Digital technology promises more problem-solving and more voice, but what it does not do is promise more connection between the two. The description I give of 2053 is in part meant to capture the veneer of a world in which they’ve come further apart: it has multiple, independent candidates, pop star candidates, and the use of technology for new innovative kinds of campaigning. There may be more problem-solving happening, but it’s not happening through that.
JC: In the book you talk about three challenges to democracy—coups, catastrophe, and technology. During catastrophe, you might think the mobilization of voice would be most consequential for solving real problems, but you say it’s actually not. Instead, you describe a mix of sleep-walking and tight-roping. What do you mean by that?
DR: Part of the point of the book is to say that the twenty-first century and the twentieth century are different. In the twentieth century it was the threat of catastrophe—through world war, economic catastrophe, and the threat of violence and civil breakdown—that made the connection between voice and problem-solving. Challenges of that scale—what we now tend to call existential catastrophes—were galvanizing for democracy. Fighting a war of national survival collectivized the experience of problem-solving.
The challenges that I talk about in the twenty-first century are against a backdrop where war no longer means war for national survival. The threats of climate catastrophe or of nuclear war or of technology running away from us don’t fit that model. They don’t make the connection in the same galvanizing way, and I think it’s more likely that we’ll be frozen by them.
The challenges in the twentieth century were existential and galvanizing for democracy. It's more likely we'll be frozen by the twenty-first century challenges.
Saving us from nuclear catastrophe or saving us from intelligent machines that turn out not to have our interests at heart—these are enormously technical questions, and they feed into an idea that problem-solving is somehow removed from democratic life. It’s the provinces not just of experts, but these detached bodies that hover above democracy. And then our fears, our anxieties, including those about violence and technology and the future of work and what it means to live, they get voiced in a particular way that don’t make a connection with democratic life.
That’s why I think we’ve got a much more frozen polity in the twenty-first century. The clichéd version of this is that, in a way, the problems are either too big or too small; once they get to the level of being genuinely existential, with the survival of the species at stake, democracy somehow freezes in the face of that.
JC: I’m a little puzzled by that. Take the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear war—it has always been an area of expertise, where technology plays a large role, and where there is a professional cast of what Fred Kaplan called in his book The Wizards of Armageddon.
But you also had very substantial movements for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. I don’t think it’s hard to make a case that the anti-nuclear movement had an impact on where policies went over the course of the 1980s. There’s a similar story about climate, where the promise of democratic politics for addressing issues about climate would look very different if democratic politics around climate in the United States look different.
DR: The age of the nuclear state is the big counter-example and the big puzzle, because democracy thrived under those conditions. In fact the glory days were the years precisely between 1947 and 1989, when the great existential threat for all of us was nuclear Armageddon.
But Cold War nuclear disarmament was a particular kind of challenge with two superpowers pointing these weapons at each other. You knew where you had to target it—you were targeting at the leadership of these states. Things have changed. It’s not as if the nuclear threat has gone away, it’s not that people don’t think it’s a real threat, and yet it’s not part of that voice in democracy. The nuclear threat as we know it is massively dispersed now so the idea of knowing how and where to work on these weapons, it’s harder for people to imagine.
As democracy thins, it becomes a reinforcing story; the belief that we can address the biggest challenges through democracy starts to fade, and it’s really hard to get it back.
In the book I draw on three New Yorker articles from the mid-twentieth century: John Hersey on Hiroshima, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. All are about the great existential challenges that could destroy us all, and all were exercises in consciousness-raising. But climate change, for instance, poses a particular kind of challenge because of its time-frames, its global quality—it’s not the same as solving or tackling the threat that pesticides pose in the United States. Likewise, thinking about intelligent machines is much, much harder for a democratic public than things like economic depression. And as democracy thins, it almost becomes a reinforcing story; the belief that we can address the biggest challenges through democracy starts to fade, and it’s really hard to get it back.
JC: I have a kind of chicken-and-egg question about that since every movement comes as a surprise. Of course it’s always clear in retrospect, but in 1951 and 1952, people were not predicting anything like the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement. So I could imagine circumstances in which, maybe it’s 2053 or maybe it’s 2023, where people report on the new face and capacity of democracy to solve large existential problems because there was a movement that was triggered somehow. The question is only how high is that hurdle?
DR: That’s a totally fair question, but I think it’s higher than maybe you do. Two things are going on here: the challenge of collective action under the current institutions of democratic life and the nature of the challenges.
My book is not meant to be pessimistic all the way down. It’s meant to be open, but if there is a pessimism, it’s that I think that the hurdle is higher. Because if it were just one of those two things, if the challenges were roughly comparable to ones in the twentieth century, but the institutions were thinning out, then, yeah, they could be galvanized. Or if the institutions were robust, they could maybe handle the new challenges. But it’s both.
If democracy is fragmenting, we should recognize that maybe we can’t have it all. Maybe we have to decide which bits we want, which bits we value.
JC: So to lower the hurdle, what are the one or two places where you think democracy is capable both of solving problems and of delivering the individual and collective dignity it has promised?
DR: We live in a very binary political world, that’s part of the problem. It’s democracy or the abyss; it’s democracy or fascism. We need to get the whole package or the package has been destroyed. Whereas if democracy is fragmenting, a mature response is to recognize that maybe we can’t have it all. Maybe we have to decide which bits we want, which bits we value.
There’s almost certainly hope that local contemporary democracy seems to have a capacity for the new. But there are also possibilities for human beings to speak to one another, to voice their concerns, their anger, their fears, and to feel empowered by that to solve problems that don’t pass through the nation-state.
Some of these problems, after all, go beyond the nation-state and are fundamentally disconnected from the more low-level, local empowerment. That is the coming apart. Some of these problems are going to break free from democratic control. We may have to accept some of that. Maybe governance of the Internet is not something that’s fit for democratic control, and yet within a world-governed internet, a world-governed space of technology, incredible experiments in new forms of democratic empowerment may be possible.
One of the things I write in my book is that if we’re going to play the game of historical analogies and pick a decade, the 1890s is a much better guide to where we are now than the 1930s. The 1890s was the great decade of populism, of inequality, and of technological revolution. So too of conspiracy theories and of peace—crucially, it was the end of a relatively long period of peace. I think populism is a product of peace, not one of war.
There’s a hopeful version of the 1890s story, which is that it leads in the early twentieth century to essentially the invention of social democracy in Europe and new kinds of progressive politics in the United States, including busting up monopolies. I talk quite a lot about what we might learn from this, and I think there are comparable grounds for thinking that we might do something similar.
The two things that give me pause are that in the early twentieth century there was enormous unfulfilled potential at the level of the nation-state. Democracy hadn’t really been tried as a national project; people were not fully enfranchised, women didn’t have the vote. Also there wasn’t a welfare state even in Europe; there was very little taxes being paid and there was national debt. All these things in the early twentieth century became a vehicle for democracy being able to address these problems.
By definition, the future has got to be more open than the past. The future is wide open, and there must be grounds for hope in that.
We don’t have that unfulfilled capacity so we’ve got to find it somewhere else. If we’re to do something comparable, we’ve got to find the place where we can say, “let’s try this because we haven’t done it.” In the U.S. case maybe it could be a democracy that genuinely delivers on the promise of treating people equally and of value regardless of race and creed.
The other straight-forward ground for pessimism is that you can’t get the twentieth century story very far before you hit the First World War. You can draw a lot of optimism from the twentieth century but it is premised on these cataclysmic events.
I’ve been struck by how often I am asked, “Are you an optimist or are you a pessimist?” I always want to say that surely the correct thing is to be both. The idea that it has to be a choice seems to me kind of crazy, actually, that maybe that’s the deepest binary of all. And yet, people increasingly are dividing up. If you’re not one of the new optimists, then you are the doom-mongers.
JC: I like to distinguish between being optimistic and being hopeful. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say that progress doesn’t roll in on the wheels of inevitability; that’s what he called the myth of time. The idea of hopefulness is that if you act socially and politically, in ways that are motivated by aspirations to produce greater justice or decency in the world, that your efforts aren’t doomed to failure. So there’s nothing in the nature of things that’s going to prevent those aspirations to produce a more just and decent world—there’s no hurdle so high, no trough so deep that you can’t get past it.
DR: Another way to put it is that fatalism is really dangerous, and I think there are optimistic forms of fatalism as well as pessimistic ones—there are even activist forms of fatalism. I think people can be hugely engaged and riled up in politics on the fundamental premise that their thinking and behaving is fatalistic. We can’t do anything about this, we can’t do anything about that—and it comes out as a kind of anger or frustration. We live in an age of deep political frustration.
I hope what I’m writing is on some level anti-fatalist by suggesting lots of possibilities for the future. This is why I’m so frustrated by the narrow historical reference we have: by definition, the future has got to be more open than the past. The future is wide open, and there must be grounds for hope in that.
Yet the thing that we have come to rely on as a vehicle for hope—the democratic politics that served us so well in the twentieth century—well, I’m certainly less than fully hopeful that we can ride it a long way into the future.
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