Democracy’s very public midlife crisis

Today's creeping pall of fascism is not a symptom of democracy’s death, but a midlife crisis, Cambridge politics professor David Runciman tells Thomas Coughlan

There seems to be no shortage of people calling time on democracy. It’s not altogether difficult to see why.

Democracies live or die on the wisdom of crowds and there is no shortage of recent examples in which the crowd’s caprice has a slim plurality on its wisdom.

It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Democracy’s critics going back to Plato have said that it really means rule by the ignorant, but the last century of democratic life has managed to refashion any number of ignorant electorates into a functioning government. No longer. But does that mean democracy is dead?

“I’m not dead yet”

Not yet, says Cambridge politics professor David Runciman.

His most recent book How Democracy Ends argues that democracy is alive, if not altogether well.

Trump, Brexit and the creeping pall of fascism that’s descended on large swathes of Europe and America are not symptoms of democracy’s death, but a crisis — a midlife crisis, according to Runciman.

The established democracies are old, tired and groaning with the existential angst of middle age. This doesn’t mean the crisis faced by democracies isn’t serious, it is, but it’s probably not the end.

“When a miserable middle-aged man buys a motorbike on impulse, it can be dangerous. If he’s really unlucky it all ends in a fireball,” Runciman writes.

“American democracy is in middle age. Donald Trump is its motorcycle”.

I’m speaking to Runciman down the line from Cambridge, where he had just finished recording his popular podcast, Talking Politics, which tackles issues as diverse as the politics of football, technology, and the meaning of Donald Trump.

A democracy of the future, a late-middle age democracy, needs to park the motorcycle, stop looking back and embrace the challenge of the new.

Trump, he tells me, is not the symbol of democracy’s end, but rather evidence of the electorate’s enduring faith in democratic institutions.

“Part of this is that people continue to have this underlying faith that democratic institutions can survive anything that we throw at them and that we can throw Trump at them and democracy will survive,” he says.

“I do feel that part of the reason people voted for Trump was not because they believed him when he said America was broken but because they didn’t believe him.

“They actually believe that American democracy and politics was robust enough that they could voice their anger, their deep frustration, their desire for something radically new without having to face the consequences of the risk of the collapse of democracy”.

The tired, broken electorate faced with a known and unknown future took a gamble on something new. It bought a motorcycle.

It's not Nuremberg 

If Trump isn’t the end of democracy, he certainly looks and sounds like it. His dystopian rendering of post-industrial “American carnage” at his inauguration chided the liberal establishment with chilling echoes of Nuremberg.

Runciman doesn’t deny it’s scary. But it’s not 1933 —that comparison is way off and even drawing it is part of the problem.

We draw comparisons for all the wrong reasons. We look back at the 1930s, searching for the emergence of fascism or we look back at the 50s, 60s, and 70s and think of our better, more virile, selves and the times when our democracies just seemed to work better.

We draw parallels between Trump and the 1930s because we recognise the politics. We recognise the demonisation of minorities, populism, and nascent fascism — but while the politics may be recognisable, the society around it is completely different.

“We are so much richer, so much older, we have so much less experience of violence and war, we are so much more networked we have a kind of communication and information environment for which there is no parallel in history,” Runciman says.

If you’re looking for a parallel between America in the 1930s and the present it wouldn’t be rich, greying contemporary America, but contemporary Egypt. It’s young, with a median age of just 24 (roughly the same as in the US in 1930), it’s GDP per capita is US$4000, roughly the same as 1930s America and the unemployment rate is high — at 15 percent.

“Democracy should create results for people and respect people and these two things have come apart."

The other comparison we make is with societies that seem to be doing what we used to be able to do. Contemporary China seems to embody the vitality that has been lost in much of the ageing democracies. They did this in the 1930s too. Democratic, depression-era Europe and America blamed their slow, stuttering democratic institutions for failing to deliver them the swift advances seen in Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Germany. Runciman calls it "dictator envy".

But China isn’t the right comparison.

A better society to look at would be Japan. It’s old, it’s rich, and it doesn’t think the solution to demographic decline is immigration. The median age in Japan is 47 and the birth rate is just 1.46. Japan is a shrinking, but prosperous society.

“It’s very peaceful, it’s been through an economic crisis dating back 30 years that it never resolved but it’s never broken the system either — democracy carries on and elections carry on. It’s got that kind of stuck, Groundhog Day quality to it”.

Beyond the motorcycle

That nostalgia is a key commodity in contemporary politics should hardly be surprising.

Democracies are old, but the people who live in them are old too. Societies where demography and democratic power are so stacked in favour of the old have never existed, we don’t how politics work when society skew so heavily against its young. As much as we may wish it weren’t true, children aren’t the future, at least not in the wealthy west — the elderly are.

The challenge of middle-age is that embracing the new often means accepting that end of youth. The temptation is to wrap oneself in fruitless nostalgia, rather than adapt to the changing circumstances of age.

“One of the ways a midlife crisis can go wrong is you know you need to change. You’re stuck in a rut, you’ve lived half your life or more and you want to do something different but you’re also really attached to your life because you’ve lived it,” Runciman says.

A democracy of the future, a late-middle age democracy, needs to park the motorcycle, stop looking back and embrace the challenge of the new.

“We need the political structures that suit the social, political world that we live in, we need the political structures of the 21st century, democracies are working with 20th century political structures”.

And this could mean democracy changing into something that looks materially different. Democracy won’t break, snap or collapse Runciman says, but it might fragment - indeed it increasingly is.

He believes two of the central components of democracy are fragmenting: the technical, problem-solving part of democracy is increasingly located in supranational institutions like the European Union, where decisions are made by elites.

Where the other side of democracy goes is more complicated. The side that gives people a voice and lets people feel heard.

The traditional way those two sides of democracy were brought together through political parties or nation-state level democracy no longer seem fit for purpose.

“Democracy should create results for people and respect people and these two things have come apart.

“We may have to live in a world where the more technical, governing sides of our politics are quite distant from us."

It sounds bleak, but it could mean a revitalisation of local politics, breathing new life into a hitherto neglected part of most modern political scenes.

It could be a bright future, but we’ll have to survive the looming motorcycle accident first.

How Democracy Ends ($36.99) is published by Profile Books and distributed in New Zealand by Allan & Unwin. 

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