In The Confidence Trap David Runciman argues that when democracies respond to crises they are “caught between their impulse to precipitate action and their instinct to wait.” This in-between nature of democracies allows them to be adaptable and, thus, remarkably resilient. President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, was able to “experiment with autocracy” in war, but could not enact his long-term vision. But adaptability comes with a price: complacency. Democracies have trouble planning for the long run partially because their citizens and officials are confident that, if push comes to shove, they will adapt at the last minute.

Runciman identifies four challenges to democracy: war, finance run amok, environmental hazard, and international rivalry. The United States has faced all of these in the past decade, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Great Recession, the failure to respond to climate change, and the threat of China’s growth. Are these simply the next crises in the cycle to which we will adapt? Or is the U.S. and other democracies suffering from their own success, stuck in a rut and unable to learn from past experience? I corresponded with David Runciman recently about the securities and insecurities of democratic states.

—Nausicaa Renner

Nausicaa Renner: In the book you point out that democracy is able to experiment with other forms of government without losing itself—how close can democracy get to autocracy?

David Runciman: All successful democracies have a number of features in common. They can be both remarkably stable and remarkably adaptable: more so than any rival system of government. So there is also a big gulf that separates the stable democracies from the rest. One feature of this that I discuss in the book is the ability of well-established democracies to experiment with autocracy without collapsing into it. I am not here talking about explicit autocratic interludes like the one that happened in India from 1975 to 1977 when Indira Gandhi suspended parliamentary government. I mean the ways that democracies like the U.S. have in the past suspended the normal rules in a crisis (above all in wartime) without abandoning democratic expectations of popular scrutiny and ultimate accountability. Autocracies can’t do this in reverse: they can’t experiment with democracy while retaining the expectation that basic autocratic controls are still intact. Once you open the door to democracy you can’t control what comes out. The current Chinese political system, for all its adaptability in other ways (being pragmatic, non-ideological, technocratic), is not adaptable in this way. Its leaders don’t dare experiment with democracy for fear of losing control. Italian and Greek democracy, for all their many other failings, have shown this adaptability: their flirtations with unelected technocracy in the past couple of years have not destroyed the underlying expectation that these are still fundamentally democratic systems of government.

This adaptability does depend on a basic level of material and political security. Relatively long-standing democracies can do it. New democracies find it much harder. The re-introduction of military control in Egypt, so soon after the transition to democracy, is unlikely to be an experiment in democratic adaptability. Regardless of whether or not it counts as a coup, it has all the hallmarks of a permanent setback rather than a temporary interlude. Fragile democracies that lack well grounded expectations of how democratic institutions function in the long run are poorly equipped to experiment with the alternatives. They tend to lapse back into them.

You ask what the limits of this ability to play with autocracy are. One limit is this: it needs to happen in the open and to be tied to a publicly acknowledged crisis. No one living in Britain or the United States during WWII could have been in any doubt either that the normal rules of democracy were in abeyance or about the reasons why, but that didn’t persuade many to think that these countries had ceased to be democracies. By contrast, secret pockets of unaccountable power within democracies – spy networks, routine surveillance, elected politicians being kept in the dark by the security services – pose a different kind of threat. What the NSA has been up to isn’t experimenting with autocracy. It’s part of a drift into the undemocratic netherworld of the permanent crisis.

NR: So the success of democracies is contingent on financial axis, if not on a political one. The statistic in the book is that if a democracy’s GDP dips below, or does not reach, $7000 GDP per capita, then it is unstable. Can you talk a little bit more about democracy’s relationship to capital?

DR: A solid body of evidence indicates that past a $7000 GDP per capita threshold no democracy is liable to revert to alternative forms of government, however disappointed people might be with the outcome of an election or the behavior of their politicians: it’s just not worth the disruption of regime change. That doesn’t mean that once a society passes that threshold democracy becomes the inevitable form of government. There are plenty of societies that have become much richer than this and remained under non-democratic forms of government, including not only the oil-rich autocracies of the Middle East but also extremely prosperous and stable non-democratic societies like Singapore. The World Bank figure for per capita GDP in China in 2012 is over $6000. The idea that when that figure passes $7000, China will democratize seems wishful in the extreme.

What the $7000 figure doesn’t tell us is what happens to the relationship between democracy and capital in societies that have gone far, far beyond it, as is the case with many Western democracies today. Notwithstanding the 2008 crash, we are at still very wealthy societies (even in Greece per capita GDP remains above $25 000). In societies where democracy is so secure that it is very hard to imagine any alternative way of doing politics, there seems to be a tendency to drift towards inequality and lax control of capitalism (this is true even in relatively egalitarian societies like Germany or Japan). It may be that democracies need the threat of a viable alternative to keep them relatively honest. After the end of the Cold War there was a growing complacency about the ability of democracies to put up with the injustices and inefficiencies of free-market capitalism because there was so little choice: what else was there?

In the 1930s democracy was menaced by fascism and communism. Now it is menaced by the lack of alternatives.

We have almost no historical evidence of what happens when this sort of arrangement breaks down. How do democracies adapt to the failures of capitalism once they have got used to wallowing in its successes? This phenomenon is too recent and too unusual for meaningful comparisons. The present crisis is not a rerun of the 1930s. There are two reasons why. First, we have the example of the 1930s to draw on, which has helped to prevent a repeat of the worst mistakes of the Great Depression. Second, we are so much richer than we were back then. As a result the current crisis hasn’t got bad enough to produce radical change. In the 1930s democracy was menaced by fascism and communism. Now it is menaced by the lack of alternatives (almost no one in the West is pushing for Chinese state capitalism as the solution to our problems). It seems very unlikely that Western democracy will fall apart. But that makes it more likely that it will get stuck in a rut.

My book uses history to show how familiar some of the present arguments about democracy and its failings are. But in one respect history is no guide. We just don’t know what happens when very prosperous democratic societies get stuck. Do they eventually adapt? Or do they drift into a slow decline? Eventually we will find out, but not for a while.

NR: It is intuitively true that they always feel they are in crisis. And yet, you hint that this time might be different: “One reason to think it might be a watershed is that it signals the unraveling of an extended political/economic experiment” (297). What has this experiment been? How can we see it unravel?

DR: In my book I discuss the cycles of crisis, recovery, distraction and fresh crisis that seem to happen in democracies every decade or two. But there are longer term cycles of systemic adjustment brought about by extended crises of the economic order. One occurred in the 1930s in the move to New Deal capitalism. Another occurred in the 1970s when that order broke down and was replaced by what now gets called neo-liberalism: open markets, deregulation of finance, rapid currency flows, regressive taxation. Now that order has perhaps reached its limit. But it is far too soon to say what might replace it. These adjustments take time. We are now five years into the Recession. At the same stage in the 1930s as we are now (around 1934), though FDR was frantically experimenting with new political and economic arrangements, the future shape of politics was very unclear. Europe was descending into violence and fascism and there was a world war and a cold war to come. At the same stage in the crisis of the 1970s (around 1976), though the old order was giving way, the champions of the new (Thatcher, Reagan) were still some way from power. The people and practices that might supplant neo-liberalism are not visible yet. One thing’s for sure: it’s unlikely to be Obama who gets it done.

Something else the current crisis has in common with these previous shifts is that the system eventually unravels because democracies follow the path of least resistance. Once the crisis is over, it becomes harder for elected politicians to persuade their electorates to keep making the necessary sacrifices to sustain the new system in place. So I don’t see the current crisis simply as evidence of the failure of deregulation and free markets. It’s also a failure of democracy. Successful democratic adaptation always produces the conditions for future democratic failure because over time elected politicians and voters push the new system to its limits and beyond in an attempt to avoid the difficult decisions. This was as true of the Bretton Woods order as it is of the neo-liberal order that replaced it. If we adjust to the current systemic crisis and build a new global economic order that preserves Western democracy, the next meltdown will be due sometime around 2050.

NR: How did you come up with the figure of 2050?

DR: These longer term cycles appear to last about forty years (before the 1930s the previous systemic shift occurred after the Great Depression of the 1890s).  It seems to take a generation and a bit for people to get confident enough with an economic order that they test it to destruction.

NR: You say, “Obama was not the agent of change in this [the current economic] crisis. In many ways, he came to embody the intractable nature of the crisis itself.” Is it helpful to talk about history in terms of symptoms and causes? How good are we at distinguishing between them? How did that inform the way that you looked at historical examples?

DR: Democracies are very bad at distinguishing symptoms and causes. That’s one reason why we always seem to feel like we are in a crisis: it’s tempting to treat every democratic dislocation as evidence of some impending disaster. One consequence of this is that democracies tend to get preoccupied with scandals, which are often taken as evidence of some wider failure of democracy. But scandals are usually a distraction rather than a vehicle of transformation: they allow people to let off steam without threatening the basis of democracy itself. At the time Watergate looked like a calamity for American democracy. In hindsight it looks like it was one of the diversions that helped American democracy to get through the 1970s intact. Watergate was not what produced systemic change.

Another feature of this is our tendency to inflate the significance of elections. We usually see them as turning points when in fact they are often evidence of something having already turned. The shift to a new economic order in the US began during the Carter administration. The election of Reagan was a symptom not a cause of the coming ascendancy of Wall Street. Equally, some elections that look profoundly significant at the time turn out to be less so. Obama’s election might be one of those. The symbolic significance is hard to overstate. But the promised change in how America governs itself hasn’t happened. Nineteen-thirty-two was a rare instance of an election that seemed as important at the time as it turned out to be in the long run.

Tocqueville noticed all this. There is a great chapter in Democracy in America that has the ironic title, “The Crisis of the Election.” Tocqueville realized that all elections are treated as turning points, despite the fact that after most elections we usually discover that nothing much has changed. ‘The entire nation falls into a feverish state. The election is the daily text of the public papers.’ But as soon as the result is announced, ‘the ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed.’

Tocqueville saw a link between the tendency of democracies to overreact and their propensity to drift. Because democracies are full of people running around saying the sky is falling in – panic sells far more newspapers than calm reflection does – they also have an inbuilt tendency to discount warnings of disaster. Since the sky rarely falls in, why listen to the people warning of disaster. So mistaking minor dislocations for real crises goes along with mistaking real crises for minor dislocations. That’s why so few people saw the crisis of 2008 coming before it arrived and why the ones who did were routinely ignored.

Tocqueville’s genius was to see how panic and complacency are not just two accidental features of democratic life: they actually go together. The restless adaptability of democracies, which means that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, is also the reason why democracies keep screwing up. When things are actually just as bad or maybe even worse than they seem, people tend not to notice. Democracies have an unfortunate habit of crying wolf.

People need to have confidence in democracy for it to work.

NR: In some sense, your account is quite discouraging, though it fits the evidence: the world is failing to act on climate change, the West is having trouble leaving war, the U.S. cannot conceive of a world in which it is not on top, and the Occupy movement turned out not to be the big historical break everyone was hoping for. Indeed, you say, “We still read Marx and Nietzsche because we want crises to be moments of truth. What Tocqueville reveals is that moments of truth for democracy are an illusion.” But how important is it for people within a democracy to continue believing they can make a difference?

DR: This is what I call the confidence trap. People need to have confidence in democracy for it to work. They have to think that nothing is quite as bad as it seems since at any given moment democracy usually looks like it’s in a real mess. The true benefits only play out over time: losers eventually become winners; the mess turns out to be the first step on the road to an improvised solution. But that confidence produces two unhelpful side effects. One is complacency – the belief that if we wait things will sort themselves out. It’s the mindset that says why act on climate change now if we can trust ourselves to adapt to its consequences once they get serious enough. The other is impatience: if democracy really is the best system why can’t it deliver its results more quickly? Contemporary American politics strikes me as both impatient and complacent at the same time. The people who are most angry about its failings also believe that it can survive anything they throw at it. That’s how you end up with a government shutdown and dangerously close to a default.

We want crises to be moments of truth because we think there must be a true story about democracy behind the mismatch between the messy reality and the long-term promise. But the mismatch is the true story. It creates a permanent space in any democracy for philosophers and politicians to offer a simpler, cleaner story, either of collapse or of redemption. It squeezes the room for the politicians or philosophers who are advocates of muddling through. But muddling through is what democracies do. It’s ugly and at certain times—now is one—it’s uglier than at others. A tolerance for the mess is as important for democracies as a desire for the truth. But without a desire for the truth a tolerance for mess just allows the mess to get worse. This is the permanent puzzle of democratic life. It’s a trap but it’s not a tragedy: democracy is not bound to fail for these reasons. It doesn’t contain some fatal flaw. It’s just very difficult.

NR: The concept of “democratic solidarity” comes up throughout the text, with two related claims. First, that perfect democracies would never have a reason to go to war, and second, that democracies have a moral obligation to defend each other. Where do these assumptions come from? Even if we began with a blank slate, wouldn’t competing interests still arise? Do democracies defend each other because “democracies in a crisis do not cling on to their principles”?

DR: As I indicate in the book, the ideal of democratic solidarity is rarely upheld in practice. Whatever moral obligation there might be in principle, the reality is often very different. Democracies are generally insular and self-referential. Except in the most extreme circumstances (Britain and France in 1940 for instance) the differences between them trump whatever they have in common. Just look at Germany and Greece today: not much democratic solidarity there. The German electorate is deeply reluctant to bail out what they see as the feckless democracies of Sothern Europe, and being told that Europe’s democracies are in this mess together cuts very little ice. Greeks think that Germans are holding them to ransom and the fact that this is being done by politicians answerable to the German people doesn’t make it better from a Greek perspective; it makes it worse. Who are the German people to tell Greeks what to do?

Yet it is also true that there are broad trends that help explain the lasting hold of democracy, including the famous dictum that democracies don’t go to war with each other (also known as “democratic peace theory”). Political scientists still disagree about why this happens but it is unlikely to be for reasons of morality. Established democracies don’t fight each other because they don’t want to pay the price: Germany and Greece will not be going to war any time soon since neither electorate would tolerate any politician willing to do something so stupidly destructive (this didn’t stop German arms manufacturers selling Greece billions of dollars of military hardware during the period before 2008, which the Greeks wanted to secure themselves against their old enemy Turkey; part of Greece’s subsequent economic difficulties stems from having to pay German banks back for the money borrowed to buy all this German weaponry). Democracies don’t like fighting wars but they do tend to win the wars that they fight against their autocratic rivals. For that reason, when one democracy confronts another each is well aware of just how costly it would be to take the conflict to the next level. Such democratic solidarity as there is comes from the fact that democracies are so wary of each other, not because they are so fond of each other.

Disenchantment is dangerous, especially when it leads to disengagement.

But you’re right that democratic adaptability also helps. Democracies pull together at times of real crisis because democratic politicians will do whatever it takes to get through. Unlike dictators, they do not stick to their guns as the ship goes down; they keep scrabbling for alternatives. The denouement of WWI was a good example of this. Once the United States joined the war in 1917 and Russia left it in 1918 it looked like a straight contest between democracy and autocracy. But the three democracies – the US, Britain and France – spent the early part of 1918 squabbling and panicking about how to defeat the advancing German army. There was an enormous amount of mistrust between them: the British and French leadership routinely suspected each other of betrayal, and both despaired at how little help was coming from the United States. Yet this squabbling and panicking also produced lots of adaptation and experimentation, to the point that a winning strategy was patched together. Unfortunately once the war was over the same tendency to chop and change scuppered Wilson’s plans for a lasting peace. There was no new dawn of democratic solidarity as Wilson had hoped. Once the crisis was past, the democracies went their back to their petty differences, with disastrous consequences. The same qualities that won the democracies the war – their restlessness and adaptability – also ensured that the victory would be frittered away.

NR: How do you see the rise of anti-immigration groups in the West? Can they be seen as a part of democracy, or should they be quarantined as a threat to it?

DR: Certainly they are a part of democracy, in the sense that very few of them are putting forward alternatives to it.  It is evidence of the hold that democracy has on Western political imaginations that even groups that might in the past have identified democratic politics as one of their targets now pay lip service to it.  The British National Party, the most extreme anti-immigration party on the British right, claims to be upholding the traditions of democracy against the mainstream parties, which it describes as totalitarians.  Once it would have been the other way round.  That doesn’t mean that parties like this aren’t a threat to democracy: the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment reflects a widespread suspicion of mainstream politics on the part of many voters, who have come to believe that it no longer serves their interests.  This disenchantment is dangerous, especially when it leads to disengagement.  The threat is not of an anti-democratic takeover but of rising anger and disillusionment with nowhere to go.  Frustration does not always produce adaptation.  Sometimes it just produces a sullen and ugly political resentment.  These forces can’t be quarantined: if you quarantine anger you often just make it worse.  The difficulty is knowing how to co-opt the anger without letting it poison the system. Nowhere in the West is doing that very successfully at the moment.

NR: Where does your revealing yet discouraging account fit into this? Does it look at the democracy from the outside? Do you see your own characterization of democracy as modified fatalism?

DR: Like many people who write about politics I often get asked why I don’t do politics. The truth is I’m put off by the mess. It’s not clean enough or neat enough: I guess that makes me a typical intellectual. So yes mine is a view from the outside and it is rather fatalistic. How things will play out – whether contemporary democracies will wake up to the challenges in time or drift from scandal to scandal as the underlying dangers get ignored – is something about which I am genuinely agnostic. Time will tell.

I have just finished reading Michael Ignatieff’s memoir (Fire and Ashes) about his recent attempt to become Canadian prime minister. Here was an intellectual who decided to take his chances in democratic politics. The results, as he admits, were pretty disastrous. He lead his party to a catastrophic defeat. In that sense it’s a depressing book, depicting a political system that (although very different from the American) is currently stuck in a cycle of scandal, partisanship and impatient intolerance for the other point of view. But it’s also a hopeful book. Ignatieff thinks the only solution to the problems of politics is for more people to do politics and to understand just how hard it is. Someone’s got to do it.