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  • Flirting with Disaster
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present. David Runciman. Princeton University Press, 2013. 381 pp.

There is an ambiguity in the subtitle of this highly original and elegantly written book by David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University. (The title also seems puzzling at first glance, but I will explain that later.) Does “A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present” mean to suggest that democracy has been perpetually “in crisis” for the past one-hundred years? Or does it mean something much less sweeping—namely, that over the past century democracy has experienced certain moments of crisis, which the author proposes to recount and to analyze? The structure of the book, as reflected in its table of contents, seems to confirm this second interpretation. Apart from the preface, introduction, and epilogue, it is composed of seven chapters that examine in some depth the challenges that confronted democracy in a series of critical years—1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989, and 2008. Runciman acknowledges that his selection of years is somewhat arbitrary, and that others such as 1940, 1968, and 2001 might also have been candidates for inclusion. Some of his conclusions are disputable and his fondness for paradox can become irritating, but on the whole he provides a coherent and illuminating account of democracy under threat.

At the same time, much in Runciman’s text points to the broader interpretation of its subtitle. He even states in the preface that democracy “exists in a semipermanent state of crisis” (pp. xix–xx), and argues that [End Page 169] the manner in which democracies respond to crises tends to shape their subsequent politics. He does not attribute this, however, to democracies learning useful lessons in the course of surmounting critical challenges. In fact, Runciman is dismissive of the capacity of democracies to profit from such lessons. What saves them instead is that they contain institutional safeguards against rash mistakes—free and regular elections, free media, separation of powers. Democratic regimes are superior to nondemocratic regimes above all in being more flexible and adaptable. Though they are prone to choosing wrong-headed policies, they have a remarkable ability to survive their blunders and try something new. This comes not from learning but from improvisation. Democracies are masters at muddling through.

Yet Runciman does not see this democratic talent as a source of reassurance. He worries that democracy’s long record of successfully muddling through makes it overconfident, encouraging its tendency toward drift while its politicians engage in petty squabbling. This gives rise to “the confidence trap” of his title. Here is how he describes it:

Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them. Debt accumulates; retrenchment is deferred. … So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. … Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which point they become lethal (p. 285).

Runciman identifies Alexis de Tocqueville as “the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis” (p. xix), and devotes a substantial part of his introduction to elucidating Tocqueville’s insights on this subject. Here he provides a penetrating reading of Tocqueville, one that brings out an aspect of his thought that has been insufficiently appreciated. For Tocqueville, democracy’s failings were all too apparent, but its superficial instability and disorder belied its subterranean strengths. Especially instructive is Runciman’s comparison of Tocqueville with Thomas Paine, who thought that freeing people from the prejudices of the past would automatically lead them to embrace democracy: “Paine wanted democracy to usher in an age of reason. Tocqueville knew the age of democracy would still have to be founded on faith” (p. 10). Far from being the most transparent form of government, democracy is one of the most opaque.

The agitations that mark the surface of democratic political life foster a recurring sense of crisis. Every election seems to be a crucial...