The death of democracy in the 21st century

Unemployment, inequality and popular discontent undermine our belief in democracy, just as they did during the runup to World War II. But are comparisons with the dramatic 1930s really justified?

2016 was an annus horribilis for political observers. First Brexit happened, then Trump was elected President, and both campaigns were overshadowed by a Russian army of fake news reporters. However, it is not so much the British and American retreat from international cooperation that frightens believers in democracy. Rather, the loud expression of discontent and the rejection of “the system” from the voters on both sides of the Atlantic reflect a worrying trend in well-established democracies.

It all seems strikingly similar to what happened in the 1930s – just before the rise of fascism and the descent into a bloody world war. Unemployment is still on staggering levels across developed countries. Inequality has been climbing to historical record heights. And the consequent discontent finds expression in rising support for the extreme right, attacks on immigrants and the emergence of “illiberal democracies” in Eastern Europe. History is repeating itself, isn’t it?

David Runciman, historian at the University of Cambridge, does not think so. In his new book How Democracy Ends* he argues that if democracy fails in the 21st century, the failure will bear little resemblance to the 1930s. In fact, he believes that we might miss the failure because we are looking for the parallels to Weimar Germany, such as the emergence of a strong military leader.

Until we realize that our democracy has failed, it will already be too late.

This time is different

Runciman starts his book with the words “Nothing lasts forever”. Indeed, he thinks that the replacement of democracy by another form of government should be expected. After all, democracies are fragile systems based on interdependence: Civilians, soldiers and the rich trust each other not to bring down the status quo. But, Runciman argues, at some point democracy will end and its demise will not look anything like the 1930s.

He thinks the 1930s are a dangerous framework to analyse our crisis because there simply is no historical precedent to our modern democracy. The combination of social media revolution, quantitative easing, automation of middle-class jobs and unprecedented prosperity is unlike anything history has seen before. At the same time, society has become both much older as well as much less violent. This is why we should not rely on the 1930s to offer lessons on what will happen and how to handle the situation.

All Runciman assumes is that political change will not be brought about by brute violence (i.e. via a new Hitler), but in more subtle ways. This is problematic because we are likely to miss them. For now, we are fooled by the illusion of continuity as the main democratic institutions still exist. However, these institutions are being hollowed out by populists who claim that democracy has been stolen and ought to be “given back” to the people. If democracy is based on the mutual trust of diverse groups, such polarization of politics must make us worry.

No doubt, democracy is in crisis. Since the tremendous social consequences of unemployment, digitalisation, inequality and global warming go largely unaddressed, it is not surprising that many people are fed up with “the system”. The term “system” implies something static, rigid, complicated, with a set of rules or institutions that can seem daunting and slow. Yes, democracy is a complex construct. If it ought to be appreciated by all political groups, it should also be made to work for them.

Runciman understands the complexity of the problem and is thus careful not to present quick solutions. But by pointing out that we all look for the wrong symptoms of democratic failure, he has started an urgently necessary debate.

* David Runciman presents his argument in condensed form in this freely available podcast.

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