Democracy is not having a good time at the moment. In our post-Brexit and Trump era, it stands accused of being inflexible, unrepresentative, in cahoots with special interest groups, and incapable of anticipating current and future challenges ranging from plundering private data from social media platforms, to big-ticket items such as climate change. Everywhere we look, democratic governments appear to be hell-bent on doing everything they can to self-harm.
One thing we should resist, however, is believing that things are unprecedented. Things appeared pretty grim in the 1970s when Nixon’s presidency was coated in scandal and accompanying opprobrium. Conspiracies and collusion made for uneasy bedfellows. Britain during this time was not a bundle of laughs either, as newspapers and political commentators condemned it for being the ‘sick man of Europe’. The elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ushered in a neoliberal revolution that shook up liberal democracy. The war on terror and the 2008 financial crisis provided further shocks to the democratic system as governments took it upon themselves to spy on their own citizens while embracing a free-flowing, light-touch regulation of finance.
Somewhere in this witch’s brew, we find David Runciman’s breezy yet incisive analysis of liberal democracy coupled with a prognosis. The election of Trump provides an evocative entrée for this democratic audit – the author is sceptical and worried in equal measure. He agitates about signs of a ‘mid-life crisis’ although he reassures us that we should not panic; we won’t go back to the worse excesses of 1930’s populism. However, there are lots of reasons to worry. Britain and the US are deeply divided and unequal societies, where hostility to immigrants is palatable and xenophobia thinly disguised.
Runciman takes us through a diagnostic procedure of democracy – there is evidence aplenty of too much populism, insufficient civility and respect for norms and protocol (read: not lying), social media spats and erosion of spaces of and for public discourse, and the corruption of politics by big money and mysterious coalitions of domestic and external stakeholders. What should really worry us is that we have not adjusted our sensors when it comes to judging the health of our democracy. If we are expecting a military overthrow or authoritarian leadership that is to be found in contemporary Russia or Turkey, then we are in danger of succumbing to misdirection. Maybe what we are beginning to confront is the extreme logics of capital and government – less money for public services, more securitisation and control of borders, reduced oversight of the wealthy and highly mobile, and a fissuring of the ‘collective’.
“What does Runciman propose as being the future for democracy? Three things are posited – coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover”
To be fair, the author does not claim any of this is inevitable. We have not lost our political and social agency just yet. But there are things we need to confront and we must disabuse ourselves that these sorts of things only happen to other people in other places. If there has been a ‘coup’ in British democratic life it has been done so with our consent – rising property prices, low income tax, and widening home ownership for some was enough to secure both Conservative and Labour governments parliamentary majorities. Our country could be split apart by catastrophe (and for many Brexit is just that) and/or taken over by robots and the spectre of automation. The Brexit debate has marked a real low point in political discourse. We used to talk about opponents, now it seems all too common to talk about ‘enemies of the people’. At the heart of all of this is a fear that legitimacy, trust, and oversight are in short supply.
Democracy is a work in progress and is capable of mutation. The liberal and the democratic don’t need one another to endure. There are tough questions to ponder: how do we live our lives together? What is (liberal) democracy good for and what is it bad at? How do we rebuild our trust in one another? Runciman may not have all the answers, but there is certainly plenty of nourishment here.