• Divij Shah

DEMOCRACY'S MID LIFE CRISIS: A BOOK REVIEW OF "HOW DEMOCRACY ENDS"

Ancient Greeks may have invented democracy, but it was not till the 19th century that a democratic wave began to emerge across countries which brought representative democracy in the sense that we colloquially speak of today.

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Here we are, barely two decades into the twenty-first century, and almost from nowhere the question is upon us: is this how democracy ends?”


The author rings the death knell in his new book “How Democracy Ends”. The book has four chapters; ‘Coup!’; ‘Catastrophe!’; ‘Technological Takeover!’; and ‘Something Better?’.

The book starts off by describing the night of Trump’s inauguration speech and the atmosphere of the room full of political scientists watching his speech. They had been reading about what happens when a soft authoritarian populist comes to power. “Never have the last days of Weimar seemed so worthy of study.” The path Runciman sets himself on is to compare the present with the past to ‘diagnose’ its ‘ailments’.


Some people smell a very foul smell similar to the 1930s: The era of tyrants and ‘elected’ authoritarians; the rebirth of nationalism, fundamentalism, and totalitarianism; the mortification of intellect and the jollification of obliviousness and apathy; a paradise for vote-bank makers; have we seen this horror film before?


The author, however, is sceptical of the parallels of 1930s Germany and Stalinist Russia, which have become the common talk in Trump’s USA and Modi’s India today. Runciman’s “How Democracy Ends” is both a benefaction to the Nazi argument and a reductio ad absurdum of it. The Cambridge professor is deeply sceptical of historical parallels. The author investigates the downfall of democracies in Turkey, Greece, and Egypt.


Climate change, systemic and periodic global economic risk, and the birth of AI are all challenges that can make citizens in a democracy feel relatively powerless. The crises we face are not the same today. Some are too big and too remote. The major events that challenged democracy during the last century were wars—Wars meant that we were all in this together and gave a strong rise to nationalism. Twenty-first-century crises, on the other hand, reinforce the sense that we are all in it separately.


History provides eerie lessons; one is that democracies can transform into autocracies and that Governments are not immortal. “Democracy is only a means to an end”. Civil rights and freedom of the press have been some of the assurances of liberal democracies, but in today’s political environment, considering the global order, we see an erosion of these promises. Democratic processes and institutions are prone to demagoguery and disintegration. The unmaking of democratic societies has begun, which is being led by democratically elected autocrats. Democracy has become more toothless – and at the same time more venomous.


Runciman’s book provides the prevalent opinion that democracy is not faring well and cautions against screaming fascism becoming a knee-jerk reaction in popular discourse.

The author seems very gloomy of the fact that representative democratic government has lost its capacity to self-revive, supported by the fact that big corporations like Facebook and Google have eroded democratic discourse and furthered polarization of voters by tailor-made content for each user according to their political interests. The digital revolution has its pros and cons for democracy, and Facebook is not an exception. Digital technology has changed so much, yet it has barely changed the way we in which we do politics.


The internet, far from being the elixir of democratic accountability and engagement that utopians once imagined, has poisoned the well.” [1] Facebook exercises a subtle and soft autocracy, and in some sense, Runciman’s third and final problem is analogous to it. The Chinese have been portraying themselves (against USA) as a power for global coordination; This particular market-friendly dictatorship is a hurdle to representative democracy, says Runciman.


He adds: “Democracy is about keeping the future open and enabling people to change their minds after encountering different views and new information; the Internet giants, by contrast, profit from always giving us more of the same. Combine the power of algorithms with a state committed to all-out surveillance of its citizens and you get contemporary China, an authoritarian model that is a serious rival to democracies today.”[2]



Runciman highlights three crucial problems that plague democracies today. The first is that violence related to politics has gone down significantly, so direct democratic failure through traditional means of a military coup d’état is out of the picture. He suggests that democracies will invisibly be undermined from within, owing to the massive stability of democratic institutions. The second challenge posed is by the way societies were galvanized to threats that surrounded them during their days. Runciman gives examples of the past like the nuclear disarmament discourse and pollution-related protests in the 1970s.

The third is the digital revolution. The average citizen cannot sufficiently comprehend the impact that current social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have on elections and potential swaying voters.


The real erosion of democracy happens when a country falls into the hands of an attention-seeking narcissist who feels like his word is above science. [3]


I share a lot of Runciman’s anxieties about democracy going to the dogs, due process not being followed, society becoming more populist, religious fanaticism and national identity, taking the center stage in international relations. For all the shortcomings and failures that democracy has, there is no other form of government with a better track record that fosters peaceful, innovative, and open societies. I agree that democracy is sometimes ineffective and inefficient in getting things done, yet Runciman without explicitly stating it finds something special about democracy. One of the best merits that democracy has, in my opinion, is the ability to self-check and correct itself which is absent in any other form of governance. Yes, democracy can go wrong, but it is the only type of government that is flexible enough to recognize the problem and put itself on the right path again. Evidentially, Runciman admits, “democratic politics assumes there is no settled answer to any question, and this protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”. Tocqueville has said, “More fires get started in a democracy, but more fires get put out too.” [4]


After finishing the book, I felt relatively optimistic about the world than I had imagined myself to be feeling. There is a glimmer of hope for democracy’s revival; very recently, Arden has won her re-election in New Zealand; Thailand is undergoing a mass democratic process against the monarchy; Bolivia has voted for a socialist leader, Morales; and democratic protests are underway in Karachi to overthrow the alleged military ‘puppet’ government of Imran Khan in Pakistan. Just in, Chile is drafting a new constitution along socialist lines. Only time will be the judge of how democracy truly ends (if it ever does) or if it is replaced by a neo-democratic ideology that makes space for technological advancements or something completely unimaginable.

In the end, I can surely say one thing, Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not the end of democracy.

Endnotes


1: Rawnsley, Andrew. “How Democracy Ends Review – Is People Politics Doomed?,” May 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/20/how-democracy-ends-david-runciman-review-trump?cv=1.


2: Müller, Jan-Werner. April 22, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-democracies-dies-how-democracy-ends-book-review


3: Jonathan Lemire, Aamer Madhani. “Trump Spurns Science on Climate: 'Don't Think Science Knows'.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, September 15, 2020. https://apnews.com/bd152cd786b58e45c61bebf2457f9930


4: Müller, Jan-Werner. April 22, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-democracies-dies-how-democracy-ends-book-review/


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About the author: Divij Shah is a first year B.A. Global Affairs student. He has previously worked with HRDA and the CVC, along with the Asian forum for Human Rights and Development.

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