Who Should we Blame if Democracy Ends? Interview with David Runciman

The Non-So-Great Unraveling. Is democracy as we know it coming to an end? This question is posed by numerous volumes in recent years, many of them with similar-sounding titles. David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends is one that deserves to be read as much for its brilliant style as for its contents.
Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University and Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies.
Professor Runciman proposes a “stress test” for democracy. Under what conditions could a democracy be at risk of losing its life? A coup, a sudden catastrophe, a shock technological innovation? In fascinating detail, the Cambridge political scientist takes each into consideration but ultimately rules them out. Democracy will not die soon. It is only that the citizens of the Western democracies are a little older and a little more hypochondriac. Despite the shock of Donald Trump’s election, despite the post-Brexit confusion and despite what is happening in many Western countries and beyond.
We interviewed Professor Runciman via Skype for ResetDoc.

«We’re in a middle age crisis». You wrote that our democracy is getting older, not dying, but getting older. What do you mean?

The argument is that democracy will in fact end, it is bound to at some point, and we are probably getting the first intimations of it. But it is doubtful that this is the moment of truth where we are going to see what the end looks like. It does remind me, speaking as a middle-aged man, of a midlife crisis. It has some of the same symptoms – for example, we are constantly comparing our democracy to much younger democracies. As you know, there’s lots of books with titles similar to mine but they make very different kinds of arguments, such as that this is the 1930s again, that we should draw on the history of 20th-century Latin America or other 20th-century examples of democratic failure. To me the cases are just so dissimilar, because almost all cases we have of democratic failure are in fact occurring in young, vulnerable democracies. These symptoms are now playing out in the very different, well-established setting of middle-aged democracies.

So it’s not a matter of life or death of democracy?

We have this feeling with democracy that is this binary choice — it’s either this one thing, or it’s the end. As if the choice were that we either hold on the 20th century package or it dies. But life isn’t like that, human life isn’t like that. There is a decline, there is an unraveling, there is a half-life. Things go wrong in stages, it doesn’t all fall apart together. We do have a kind of template for failure of democracy, the all-or-nothing failure that we saw in Weimar: the suspension of the rule of law, the end of elections, or military coups. My argument is that this is not such an all-or-nothing moment. This is a decades-long process, and it is an unraveling.

You write that a key aspect of the current crisis in the democracies is the growing distance (economic, social, cultural and also of age) between the political elite and the people. Why is this a problem for democracies?

In the 20th century, the big division in democratic society was between most of the population, on one side, and on the other, their elected representatives – who tended to be much wealthier, better educated and older. And given that there are more old people than young people in the mature democracies — in Western Europe in the United States in Japan, at least. Italy is the first democracy in human history where the average age of the members of the legislature is lower than the median age of the population so the voters are older than their representatives. This is an incredible fact. But is also true that these are societies in which roughly half of people under the age of forty now go to University, whereas fifty years ago only two percent did so.

We have on average more educated, richer and older voters.

Right – it used to be that the politicians went to University, so the politicians were University-educated but the people weren’t. Now half of the people are University educated and half of them are not, half of them are older than the politicians and half of them are younger. Now, being in the middle class means that the people are roughly in economic terms equivalent to their politicians. My argument is that the absence of democracy was based on the difference between the representatives and the people.

This seems to be one of the roots of the so-called “populism” that is crossing the West.

Now we have societies in where they are like half of the population but not like the other half. So, half have good reason for saying: “why do these people get to decide?” And then the other half, who are not like them, have good reason for saying: “we never get a fair crack of the whip because they only represent the educated.” This division is now in the electorate itself, whereas the division used to be between the voters and their representatives. Now the division is within us, and both sides have a reason to want more direct democracy. So, the educated can say we are just as educated as the politicians why don’t we get to decide? And the less well educated can say they never listen to us, and it’s new. These are new features. There have never been societies before where half of the population went to University, half of the population are fifty years old or older, and the average per capita income is, by historical standards, new. There is no 20th-century parallel for this.

Direct democracy could be a solution? What kind of mechanism do you see helping address that thirst for direct democracy without descending into something into the sort of Carl Schmitt critique of parliaments?

Brexit is the case study of this. It is a classic example of how you need to add something to the legitimacy of representative democratic decision-making. But there are impulsive responses to this demand which made the problem worse. If all you do is ask the people one question in a referendum and then plug it back into the representative system, it does not work. Plebiscitary democracy addresses some issues, but it can also just deepen divisions. We are fifty-fifty societies, and plebiscitary democracy in fifty-fifty societies is very dangerous.

Is there some other consultative mechanism that can make this less so?

With something like Brexit, there are so many ways that referendum could have been surrounded by consultative, deliberative and regular participatory forms of democracy. We could have genuinely consulted the citizenry on the question. We could have built into it a series of steps depending upon the outcomes of these consultations – including whether we will have a second referendum, or what do about the form Brexit takes? We could have had citizen juries to discuss some of the implications of it. We could have found other forms of representations and parliamentary representation. We could have just asked people a question and then look to the parliament to deliver on the concrete result. But British politics cannot cope with it. We see it is frozen, it is just stuck. It is stuck because the institutions cannot accommodate the demand for direct democratic participation with unreformed institutions.

So, what’s the way out?

My solution is to try new things. In institutional terms, British politics has not changed for a hundred years. Everything else has changed – but not the institutions. We have the same political parties, the same electoral system, and basically the same kind of representation.

What about polarization through social media? Do you consider this to be a threat to democracy?

We have lost sight in the ways in which technology is simultaneously enhancing and corroding democracy. Is it good for democracy or is it bad for democracy? The answer is it must be both at the same time. The same thing that is fueling some of the division and some of the lies is also fueling empowerment and engagement and new kinds of political community and alliances. They should deliver workable policies that deliver real material benefit. This technology could be enhancing both, in the sense that we have more voice and we also have more kinds of technical mechanisms for getting to better politics. But the two sides of democracy are coming apart. I think that the deeper problem is not just that people with different points of view are more divided than they ever were before. It is also the collapse of the ability of democracy to solve people’s problems. The professional technical problem-solving half of the population and the other “people-have-spoken” half are being pulled apart.

Do you think the technology is to blame?

I am reluctant to blame the technology. The people circulating fake news and propaganda were always there, but also the technology is not only doing that. I am resistant to the idea that is the key to the analysis is more symptom than cause.

Do you mourn the loss of the stable mass parties? Why is that bad?

I do mourn it, but we always mourn the symptoms of the midlife crisis. You mourn the thing that you have lived with all your life and fits you comfortably. The middle-aged don’t cope well with change. We are in the phase where the parties are falling apart, and it is not clear what stable thing can replace them. The social-democratic center left parties that are being destroyed by the inability to survive the divide. Half of them were parties that combined technical problem-solving that delivered both material benefits and voice, and they cannot survive anymore. If you are on the side of the problem-solver then you are somehow against the people. The one party which seems to be managing this is the British Labor party. It is doing so by turning itself into a social movement that may well not actually be able to govern. In Britain such a party in government breaks down because you cannot have a party that embodies both its members and the representatives. This worries me because we are sticking with the institutions that depend on those parties. Democratic politics organizes around elections every few years on programs which are put to the people in order to bridge social divisions and in order to create a coherent platform of the government. If the parties have gone, then elections will produce bizarre results and then you must wait four years before you get another chance. So I do not mourn their loss because I think somehow this is how it must be, but our institutions are currently organized around that system. As that goes, our institutions will be getting more and more vulnerable.

Are you familiar with the “Rousseau platform” of the 5-stars movement?

Yes, I know what it is – an experimental attempt at crowd-source policymaking. Even if you can crowdsource your policies, you are still going to run a conventional government on an electoral mandate pursuing opinion poll rating through a parliament, a legislature, which operates in the traditional way. Is hard to see now anywhere in the world where new experimental forms of democracy can be just plugged back into the old institutions and make them better.

Are you worried about what comes next?

Almost certainly what democracy will do is unravel. In twenty years’ time, some parts of the world will be much more democratic, for example in relation to our lived environment, our control over health and maybe some aspects of the information space that directly impact us. But some parts of our world will be radically less democratic. We may end giving up on trying to control international finance, we may end giving up on trying to control the architecture of the internet. I think that’s the most plausible future ,which is either democracy or fascism.

Are there countries where the threat of a failure of democracy is more pressing?

In my view there are aspects of our world where we should be worried about the return of fascism, and there are many parts of the world where the worst-case scenario for democracy is terrible, and it is not a gradual unraveling. Indian democracy could fail in catastrophic ways, partly because is still a young society and has got a surplus of young men. It is also still a poor society, and its institutions are in some ways much less well-suited to this up challenge of unraveling. I think that there are places in Eastern Europe where we should take seriously the possibility that democracy will fail in ways that will be recognized as similar the 20th century failures. My view is that Italy is not in that position.

On that last point, what is your view on grand coalitions? Are they good solutions or do they exacerbate the problem you are describing — arguably the governments of Italy, France, and Germany have all kind of opted for a mushy marriage of multiple party backgrounds.

I would say that electoral systems still really matter. In Britain, now that we have reached the absolute impasse of our current politics, there is no way forward, there is no way back and there is no way sideways. We are where we are. This is the moment where we need what we would call a national unity government, which is absolutely a grand coalition government. But outside the war we never had one, and it does not work in our parliamentary system, it is unimaginable. So, we are stuck because that is impossible. Other electoral systems seem to make it almost the default — “we are in trouble let’s all get together.” In a way every system wants what the other has. I remember talking to a Swedish journalist ten years ago about political systems and he said ‘in Sweden we long for the first-past-the-post, decisive system where you can just kick the government out and they have to leave the next day and you never hear from them again.” And I was like ‘but we long for aspects of your system.” We all want what the other person has.

Image: DANIEL SORABJI / AFP