‘Democratic politics,’ says Author David Runciman “has become an elaborate show. Mature, Western democracy is over the hill”. Mr Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge and so he must be right. It is in fact hard to read this book without being persuaded that we are on the brink of democratic collapse. How weary a word has democracy actually become, and why is it over the hill?
Referendums, the old cornerstone of democracy, are held up as a prime example of a democratic process that has become ineffectual. “The spectators get dragged on stage to say a simple yes or no to a proposition they have played no part in devising.” Of course we are talking about Brexit, as far as the UK is concerned, but there are other examples too. Erdogan’s recent referendum in Turkey for instance, which as Runicman says, had all the outward appearances of democratic process without actually having a democratic agenda. These are sobering thoughts, even terrifying ones. Are such fake democratic devices really just a mask for a kind of “executive aggrandisement” – in other words are we being democratically manipulated? Are some politicians grabbing themselves a fatter slice of the power cake while all the time allowing us to think that we have served it to them on a democratic doily? I think anyone who has an inkling of how politicians use the media would claim that such manoeuvres are happening all the time, and yet we often accuse the accusers of being no more than conspiracy theorists. But are they?
When Donald Trump was inaugurated President of the US in 2017 many may have imagined that in some way democracy was threatened, but in reality, as Runciman points out, it would only really have been threatened if Obama had refused to hand over the baton. In other words as long as the institutions of democracy hold good, we are safe. It may not have felt all that safe recently, God knows, but looking at things positively, the idea is that a Trump victory may have been safer for American Democracy than a Trump defeat. Picture the contention, says Runicman, had Clinton actually won. That “democracy is civil war without the fighting,” lets us easily imagine the reverse.
Still, even if we agree that our institutions are the cornerstone of democracy, the fact is that politicians are not delivering on their promises; they are not satisfying the dream of democracy, that it would deliver us equality, prosperity and peace. Well, perhaps it did, for a while, but the new wave of populism proves irrefutably that people are pissed off. There is a general miasma of dissatisfaction hanging over Western Europe. In what way did the plan go wrong? Well, I’m not sure at this point whether to unleash a spoiler, but my duty to the readership is being eroded by my desire to have my say — dare I add in much the same way that democracy is being eroded by individuality — or, as Runciman puts it, by “the language of personal identity”, which is becoming “something close to anarchism”.
Many things have caused this wave of anarchism that is apparently infecting our societies, but technology is apparently at the core of it, as is the internet (which was destined to favour democracy) and social connectivity in all its forms.
You may or may not agree with some of the ideas in this book, particularly as far as the rise of technology is concerned, which some people see as a liberating influence on society; you may even find Runciman’s prescriptions a little autocratic, particularly when he says things about the democratic process like, “What’s so special about letting everyone take part”, or “Why not ditch the dignity that comes with voting altogether”, and let the experts resolve the problems. One wants to say, as a Brit, that we tried that already during the Brexit referendum, only there were too many ‘experts’. Never mind. This book does make other claims harder to argue over, such as the claim that equality is necessary for moral renewal. That at least does stand the test of history. Inequality did after all provoke war in Europe, and was overturned at the end of it.
Any Cop?: Disaster is a great leveller. All of which brings us back to Trump. Is democracy about to end? Read the book and don’t say we didn’t warn you.