- The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman
David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap is a racing narrative of the travails of democracy and the confounding logic of its resilience. The premise for this illuminating reflection comes from the key points in Alexis de Tocqueville’s reading of America’s democracy. These include ‘‘democracy and its rivals,’’ ‘‘democracy and fate,’’ and ‘‘democracy and crisis.’’ Tocqueville’s reading contrasts with the views of philosophers and writers such as Plato, Thomas Paine, and Charles Dickens. Plato holds a generic view of democracy and underscores its ignorance, folly, and vanity in ways that deny the class content of society. Paine, himself a radical champion of democracy, underscores democracy’s attribute of transparency as opposed to monarchy and other autocratic systems. Dickens dismisses America’s democracy as hypocritical. Runciman drives home these points and paints a distinctive account of Tocqueville’s insightful appreciation of democracy in ways that mark him as the best guide to democracy in crisis.
Tocqueville is not enamoured of Paine’s interpretation of democracy as transparent. He argues that ‘‘democracy never truly reveals itself. There will always be a gap between perception and reality in a society founded on democratic principles’’ (10). Tocqueville also notes that democracy is prone to fatalism for two reasons. First is the evidence that the world’s destiny is democracy, insofar as the republican value that ‘‘no one was [End Page 436] born to rule over another’’ holds sway (11). Second, the knowledge of democracy as the ultimate destination engenders a faith in its eventual triumph despite its situational instability. Tocqueville espouses the distinction made by John Stuart Mill regarding ‘‘oriental fatalism’’ and ‘‘modified fatalism.’’ The former is ‘‘the belief that higher power has mapped out in advance everything that will ever happen to us’’ while the latter is ‘‘the belief that we are the products of our circumstances and there is nothing we can do to change that’’ (15). The latter is true of America’s fatalism.
Tocqueville recognizes well that crisis means a dangerous moment and portends dangers for democracy. In the main, ‘‘democracy muddles through war and revolutionary change, its confusions ineradicable and its progress inexorable. It never fully grows up. And it leads to where we are now’’ (33). Armed with Tocqueville’s cant, well laid out in the introductory section of this work, Runciman readily navigates the trajectory of democracy in the last century and first decade of the present. He focuses his analytical lens on the major crises, spanning his scrutiny from WWI and the ascent of Adolf Hitler to leadership of 1933 Germany, to the Nikkei burst, India’s crisis of the 1990s, and the recent financial meltdown. Each of these crises provides a litmus test for the strength of democracy, which inheres in its adaptability. Democracy’s response affirms Tocqueville’s reading of the democratic advantage over autocracy. The adaptability to the crisis in the quest for solution and the uncanny belief that crisis will come and go, attest to the confidence trap in which democratic actors are looped.
The author demonstrates earnest commitment to Tocqueville’s matrix in his foray into The Confidence Trap. His journey is impressively accomplished. The style of execution reads like Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776). But the analysis suffers a great deal from an over-arching insularity. Runciman paints a picture of a world in which other regime types are trumped by democracy. Its enduring nature necessarily provokes the question: which democracy? It is obvious that his democracy is liberal democracy. His refusal to clarify this is a major deficit and smacks of ideological hubris. He ignores the fact that there are many markers for democracy and liberal democracy is but one of them.
The author espouses the view of Friedrich Hayek, who sees capitalism as a natural complement of liberal democracy and ignores the contradictory...