How Democracy Ends
by David Runciman
Basic Books, 2018
“Strong democracies have all the advantages over weak democracies except one,” writes Cambridge University professor David Runciman in his dolorous new book, How Democracy Ends,
weak democracies know when they have failed. Failure looks like Greece in 1967. It doesn't look like that anymore. Now, if we have coups, they arrive without the coup de grace. There is not before and after. There is only the murky space between.
How Democracy Ends is largely an examination of that murky space; the book could just as easily have been titled Death Throes. And although Runciman's book – like the roughly 1,700 similar books that have appeared in the last 500 days – had as its dark inspiration the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 and his subsequent, permanent failure to 'pivot' towards mature or presidential behavior, he tries his best to strike a detached tone throughout, briefly examining the fates of some failed democracies and cautiously applying some of those earlier lessons to the upheavals currently afflicting the United States.
A detached, cautious tone, and yet. Runciman clearly takes as his starting-point that democracy as a principle and method of government is a spent force, an organic system going through a “mid-life crisis” that needs to be understood “in relation to the exhaustion of democracy as well as its volatility, to the complacency that is currently on display as well as to the anger.” How far American readers are willing to nod along with his extrapolations will depend entirely on how firmly they believe they're currently living and working and voting and protesting inside a rotting corpse.
The most fascinating element of Runciman's book is his theorizing about what might follow this particular mid-life crisis. Will a kind of benign despotism evolve as it did in ancient Rome, with a “first citizen” who is a king in all respects except public presentation? Will the whole system come crashing down and hurtle quickly towards something radically different? Or – and Runciman's case for it is less outlandish-sounding than you might think – will the rise of AI-guided technology shove aside quarrelsome humans entirely?
“Democracies remain good at putting off the evil day,” he writes.
Their inability to get a grip or to keep a sense of perspective is useful for delaying the worst, even if it is deeply frustrating when it comes to trying to do much better than that. Kicking the can down the road is what democracies are best at. That's why the road may turn out to be longer than we thought.
But as much as How Democracy Ends wants to talk about the future down that road, this is nevertheless inescapably a book about the present, and about one specific man. Runciman quotes neuroscientist Robert Burton: “Donald Trump represents a black-box, first generation artificial-intelligence president, driven solely by self-selected data and wildly fluctuating ideas of success.” And in the interval between when Runciman sent his final proofs to his publisher and when his book appeared, the alarm of that one deplorable individual has deepened, threatening in new ways every day to both undermine and underscore books like this. Runciman's book about democracy's slow, gradual decline into possible autocracy arrives in bookstores only days after the President's lawyer declared that Trump is effectively above the law while in office; even for the crime of murder, he'd only be subject to the law after he'd been impeached, a chillingly outrageous thing for an American to say. More such outrages are as certain to follow as night follows day. Books like How Democracy Ends practically need to come with 1-800 help lines and running tally boards.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.