The Death of Democracy Is Going to Take a While

Why our institutions might survive, hobbled and degraded, for years and years to come.

A faded American flag.

In his new book, How Democracy Ends, the British political scientist David Runciman examines a familiar topic from a new angle. Amid understandable fears about the state of democracy worldwide, and with politicians sounding like strongmen of previous eras, Runciman argues that we are misunderstanding our predicament. He makes the case that we are relying too much on the rise of fascism before World War II as a reference point and failing to grapple with the fact that democracy is likely to wither away or erode, rather than quickly fall to authoritarians.

I recently spoke by phone with Runciman, who is also the host of the podcast Talking Politics. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Trump’s election proved Americans have too much faith in democracy, why comparing the U.S. in 2018 to 1930s Europe (or 1930s America) is foolish, and why modern-day Japan may actually be a good window into our future.

Isaac Chotiner: What is it that you think people are misunderstanding about how democracy is likely to end?

David Runciman: I think they have the wrong historical framework for it. There are a lot of books with titles similar to mine, and they tend to look at past democratic failure and hear the echoes in the air now. They hear the things that politicians, particularly Trump, say, and it reminds them of the past. Then they extrapolate a picture that we all have in the back of our minds of what democratic failure looks like: a breaking point where the institutions snap, the military takes over in the worst-case scenario, or at least democracy signals its clear inability to function.

The 1930s is the model decade. But my feeling is that our democracies won’t fare like that because our societies are completely different.

What is it that makes you think our society has changed so much?

I think part of the problem here is that the United States of America thinks it has more in common with 1930s America, because it’s the same country, than it does with other foreign countries around the world at the moment. But actually, the past literally is another country. 1930s America is more like contemporary Egypt, because it was poor, it was young, it was violent. Per capita GDP in the 1930s in America was about 10 times lower than what it is today; half the population was 25 and younger, like Egypt’s; it was actually a much less educated society than contemporary Egypt. [Today] we live in old societies, so people are just so much older, and what does democratic failure look like in a society where most people are over 40, over 45, where the per capita GDP is $40,000 plus, where, for all our scare stories about violence, our actual experience of violence, particularly political violence, is very, very low? It’s another world, and nothing like the 1930s.

So then what do you think the future has in store?

We should be thinking about the ways in which our democratic institutions—far from breaking, and far from collapsing in violence—can probably survive a lot past the point where they’re actually functioning and delivering. So the response I had to Trump’s election was that it wasn’t a signal that the people who voted for Trump had given up on democracy at all. It was almost a sign that they had so much faith in democratic institutions that they thought they could survive anyone. You could vote for Trump and the system would somehow protect you from him. We could continue to have faith in these institutions long past the point where they actually deliver. And then the big risk that we run is that [our challenges] run outside of democratic politics, whether it’s climate, whether it’s the coming of A.I. and automation, the digital revolutions. Those things run through and around our democratic politics; they’re not going to break it in half, but it could easily be the case over the next 50 years that democracy fails to deal with any of these challenges, and it keeps going. That’s a new kind of failure. In the past, when democracy failed, it told you it had failed because it stopped.

Is there a model country for where we are heading?

If you want to look at what Western democratic failure looks like, it’s got more in common with current Japanese politics and society than with Latin America in the 1970s, or Weimar Germany.

OK but most people hear that and say that 21st-century Japan compared to almost everywhere is—

Pretty good.

Thriving, comparatively, to most places in human history.

In the great lottery of life, if you pull your name out of the hat and it tells you where and when you’re going to live in human history, and it says early-21st-century Japan, you’ve won the jackpot. So that’s part of a point: This is democratic failure in a society that’s as good by historic standards of any society has ever been to live in. It’s prosperous, it’s comfortable, it’s peaceful, but it’s aging incredibly fast. It cannot cope with immigration. It does not want immigrants. It’s basically putting its faith in automation and robots to do work. It’s not producing young people, doesn’t have immigrants coming in. Clearly the United States is not there yet, but bits of Europe are there now. I mean bits of Europe really have become Japanophile in that way, but it’s not sustainable. It’s fine, it’s completely livable, and as a system of politics, it’s got a shelf life. You can see the mortality of Japanese democracy because when you think 5,000 years ahead, it’s not going to work. Unless the bet on the robots really delivers, and in the end it becomes a completely different world.

You said that voting for Trump was actually a sign that people had faith in democracy. One of the things that I think is really dangerous for our democracy right now is that people think our democracy is really strong. They think you can vote for Trump and that things will be OK. They say things like—

They basically think it’s indestructible.

“If he does X then this institution will stop him.” At the same time, there’s incredible cynicism about politicians: “They’re all crooks.” And so you get this thing where people look at Trump’s corruption and say, “Well, all politicians are bad. Politics is terrible,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, combined with this weird faith in our system. I think that that’s a pretty toxic brew.

I completely agree and that’s the bleakest part of this, which is it’s this weird combination of almost implicit, unthinking faith that democracy can survive anything and this rage against politics now in the moment. When you put those two things together, you have a really dysfunctional politics that’s going to struggle to get anything done.

I do think that the kind of situation that we’re in is one that is weirdly sustainable, because if democracy still performs some of its basic functions—and of course if Trump is still president in 10 years’ time, I’m wrong—but you still get these turns, these twists, these dramas, these scandals, and you get these outlets for the rage, then the rage moves somewhere else. What you don’t get is what you got in the 20th century when democracy fell apart, which was where forces against democracy aggregated around a particular moment in a particular crisis, and broke it.

I don’t think people will look back on the Trump years and think either that was a complete outlier or that was the moment when everyone realized “the change.” They will, I think, look at the Trump era as part of a long story of democratic decline. So Trump for me is more symptom than the cause, and when Trump goes, democratic institutions will have been damaged and corroded.

One way people on the left and center have been responding to some scary things going on in democracies is by, for instance, wanting to have another vote to redo Brexit. Or there’s the Italian president basically saying that he is not going to accept an anti-EU finance minister, and therefore not accept the coalition government between some right-wingers and some populists who won the election. How concerned are you about attempts to override the expressed will of the people, even if the people are wrong?

I think [these examples] are different. What we had in the British case was the referendum, and referendums have pretty impeccable democratic credentials in the sense that the entire population or voting population is asked a straight question, gives a straight answer. What no one thought about and what no one knows how to do is how to fit that into representative electoral-party politics. It is, in a sense, an enhancement of democracy; it’s more democratic, but it doesn’t mesh with existing democracy.

So what you got in Britain is two kinds of democracy clashing and unable to be reconciled, and the evidence of just how hard it is is that Theresa May called an election. She said, I can’t do Brexit through [the current] Parliament so here’s your chance. If you meant what you said in the referendum, vote for me and we’ll get Brexit done. The British people said no. They said, “This is a general election, so we’re going to vote for Corbyn because we want better social policy.” They don’t go together, and Britain’s got to work out how it’s going to get out of this mess where representative politics and direct democracy are just going to rub each other the wrong way. There’ll be pragmatic fixes, I think, and there won’t be a second referendum, because what we’ve learned is you can’t [undo] these things.

The Italian case is I think much more acute, because that was basically a country that knew that elections were really bad for its politics, and it tried to avoid having them. It avoided one for as long as possible: more than five years. It finally had to have one if it was going to be a democracy, and gets a result it can’t live with. Then you have a system where the president has to make a decision, which then looks completely undemocratic. No one in Britain has done anything yet that looks completely undemocratic, so the Italian case is I think closer to where you see democracy and something that is not democracy fighting. I still think in the Italian case it looks like a six-month hiatus before they have to have another election. If the next election produces an even more strong reaction in favor of populism, at some point they will have to be a populist government. I don’t think in Britain we’re going to have a populist government, but in Italy they will, and then the Euro could start to really unravel.

I’ve heard people who talk about the health of democracy say that what would be really healthy in the United States’ case would not be impeachment, not the Russia investigation bringing Trump down, but him being voted out of office–that there’s an incredible importance to that. Do you agree that’s the proper remedy, and the others will trouble us down the road?

The essence of democracy has to still be that the thing that doesn’t work gets rejected by the people in an election. The essence of democracy is that the people see something isn’t working and they change it. So I think, probably for the health of American democracy, almost any scenario you can think of that involves Trump leaving office outside of an election is fuel to the conspiracy theories, the mutual suspicion, the partisanship.

But there hasn’t been a lot of evidence in recent American democracy that change at the ballot box produces the kind of deep change that most people are hungering for. It’s more likely to fit that story I just described in the British case, which is: It’s not that we stopped having elections, but that we have all of these elections and they produce these results that pull against each other. Sure, the Democrats could sweep Congress and the presidency over the next two years, whatever it is, and then you get a fresh start. But there have been those fresh starts. Obama had a fresh start. There’s not a lot of evidence that elections actually deliver the kind of change that people say they want. Those fresh starts have done nothing in the last 20 years to take the rage away.