How democracy ends

| October 8, 2018

These are troubling times for admirers of democracy. The rise of right and left-wing populists, a growing number of authoritarian regimes and an apparent loss of confidence in democratic politicians—especially amongst the young—have all contributed to the idea that democracy is in serious trouble.

David Runciman is one of an increasing number of observers who worries that democracy’s problems may prove terminal. Runciman’s analysis is alarmingly persuasive, in part because he has long been one of the shrewder observers of contemporary politics and writes with the authority of one who understands what’s at stake and how we collectively got to this point.

Thankfully, he doesn’t bludgeon the reader with his learning or the leaden prose that sometime accompanies so much academic writing. On the contrary, Runciman provides one of the more accessible—even compelling—introductions to the sorry state of global politics currently available.

One of the reasons this book is highly recommended is that despite the number of competing titles covering similar ground, Runciman offers a distinctive and original interpretation of the democratic malaise. A large part of the problem, he argues, is that the forces that held democratic societies together during the even greater crises of the twentieth century no longer work.

The rise of identity politics and the concomitant loss of a sense of collective purpose are undermining the foundations of participatory politics. The remarkable decline in the membership of many traditional political parties and trade unions seems to bear this point out. Francis Fukuyama—notorious for predicting the triumph of liberal democracy—is another observer who lays much of the blame for the failure of contemporary politics at the feet of special interests and the neglect of those left behind by globalisation.

While some of these ideas may have rapidly become the conventional wisdom, what sets Runciman’s diagnosis apart, in my view, is his recognition of the divisive impact of climate change and environmental degradation. In the affluent West, he argues, there is “a distinct sense of apocalypse fatigue.” Consequently, an issue that might be thought to be quintessentially global and all inclusive, is actually proving divisive. The diffuse, unfathomable nature of contemporary catastrophe is “stultifying” rather than galvanizing.

The diminished faith in the ability of the “epistrocracy”—the possessors of expert knowledge and insight—to provide definitive answers to unprecedented problems is also a contributing factor to a systemic loss of confidence in the old order. Rather surprisingly, however, Runciman doesn’t really consider the international drivers of some of these problems.

Yet the political consequences of unregulated migration into Europe, for example, underlie many of the European Union’s current problems and even threaten its continuing existence. It is no coincidence that right-wing nationalism has experienced an upsurge in much of the West and resulted in potentially disastrous and destabilising phenomenon such as Brexit.

One of the attractions of authoritarians, Runciman suggests, is not simply that they offer simplistic solutions to complex problems, but that they promise to restore an old order in which the positions of the marginalised and disaffected will be restored: “In place of personal dignity plus collective benefits, [authoritarians] promise personal benefits plus collective dignity.”

There is plainly something in this claim. The growth of leaders promising to restore countries to their former glory and/or proper place in the international scheme of things is not confined to the likes of China, Russia or Turkey. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s “America first” movement employs a similar rhetoric and an alarming disdain for democratic principles and the rule of law.

Both the United States and China also illustrate a final, paradoxical feature of the contemporary political order that has failed to live up to the hopes that many invested in it. Technology and the communication revolution have not unleashed an unstoppable tide of political liberalism and freedom of speech. China’s increasingly sophisticated and pervasive surveillance state is perhaps the most comprehensive confirmation of Runciman’s claim that “the internet has not proved to be an autocracy-busting machine. It has turned into another useful tool of power.”

The rather sobering conclusion of this book is that “mature, Western democracy is over the hill.” The signs of failure may be different from earlier eras and are likely to surprise us, he suggests. On a more positive note, the possible alternatives to traditional democratic politics might surprise us, too; “there are no better alternatives around at present, but that does not mean that none are possible.” Let’s hope he’s right about that, too.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.

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Mark Beeson

Mark Beeson is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. He was appointed as the AIIA National Research Chair in 2017.

One Comment

  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    October 11, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    John Passmore in ‘The Limits of Government’ refers to the tale of King Canute who is often wrongly accused of claiming to be able to turn the tide with a wave of his hand. It’s more likely Canute was attempting to show his subjects that their expectations were beyond his powers. But the popular leaders of our time suffer no such misgivings about their own capacity to decide the fate of millions. Their ‘subjects’ have been convinced by a ceaseless tide of superficial news and social media that not only does everyone have a right to their opinion, but that all opinions have equal validity, regardless of evidence. Based on this relativist fallacy, if a politician or celebrity who looks and sounds just like we do, suggests that vaccination and fluoride are deadly or that coal miners are wicked, failure to acquiesce will seem like self-betrayal.

    Political activists and agitators, would-be tyrants and trade union leaders prefer mass rallies to more democratic means such as secret ballots to achieve support. I once witnessed a mass meeting where union members actually voted away their right to vote, thus handing complete control of a dispute to the organisers of the rally. The result was an extended strike with loss of income and considerable suffering for the members who gained nothing because it emerged that they were mere pawns in a wider political campaign. At the meeting, the crowd behaved very much like a ‘murmuration’ of Starlings. We now know that the birds act in unison because each bird maintains a constant distance between itself and the four birds immediately surrounding it. It would appear that political power-brokers had unravelled the mystery of this natural phenomenon well before the biomathematicians.

    It is arguable that more insidious means of control have made redundant the brutal ‘reign of terror’ employed by British imperialist forces in India or by Stalin to consolidate the soviet empire. Power can be seized now by manipulation of public opinion and, as Chomsky contends, the ‘manufacture of consent’ by mass communication. In this model, propaganda is substituted for information and given the appearance of substance by reference to economic nonsense based on assumptions that merely reinforce existing and contrived fear and prejudice. ‘Alternative facts’ concerning the distribution of wealth or implied links between immigration and unemployment or crime are commonly used to build support around the weak, plastic ideologies of the politically ambitious. But why would voters not be inclined to ‘join the flock’ and support political candidates who look as they do and say the things they wish to hear?

    We have arrived at a point in our history where opinion is widely mistaken for information. This raises unrealistic expectations so that democratically elected governments cannot function effectively for fear of losing office. It is self-evident and borne out by history that few people are capable of leadership and that fewer still are willing to accept the great responsibility it demands. If that were not so, then how do we explain why, when the world more than ever needs great democratic leaders, they are nowhere to be found. Great women and men evidently do not want to put themselves forward for leadership in the present era when political survival depends not upon visionary ideas but on finding the lowest common denominator and pretending that unlimited wants can be satisfied with limited resources. The Australian tendency to distrust authority renders us even more susceptible to misinformation. This habit of cynicism extends beyond sport and politics to science and technology. For example, environmental activists find it easy to stir up opposition to mineral exploration, based on ideology that seems to accept climate science but rejects hydrogeology without sufficient understanding of either of these highly complex disciplines.

    Bertrand Russell, in his essay ‘On Youthful Cynicism’ (c. 1930) contends that “the rulers of the world have always been stupid, but have not in the past been so powerful as they are now. It is therefore more important than it used to be to find some way of securing that they shall be intelligent.” He goes on to say that ‘belief is seldom determined by rational motives, the same is true of disbelief, and the causes of widespread scepticism are likely to be sociological rather than intellectual. The main cause is always comfort without power. Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs. The effect of mass production and elementary education is that stupidity is more firmly entrenched than at any other time since the rise of civilization’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in another context that: “stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. Against stupidity we are defenceless; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s pre-judgement simply need not be believed.” Subsequent events proved both to be prophetic.

    ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’. There is a distinction to be made between the electors and those they have chosen to represent them. However, if this distinction is eroded to the point where ‘the people’ become ungovernable then, by definition, democracy fails. The remedy is surely to be found, not in the ‘fourth estate’ but in the restoration of the institutions that protect us from our own folly, beginning with genuine constitutional reform to produce truly representative government for Australia.