If ever there was a democratic election in a giant modern nation-state, it was Donald J. Trump’s victory in 2016. And I’ve closely watched every presidential election since I was nine in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson lied his way to a landslide against Barry Goldwater. Trump gathered the remnants of Nixon’s Silent Majority and the Reagan Democrats, added the new Deplorables, and appealed to middle- and working-class Americans long taken for granted by both parties—even as those patriots’ jobs, country, and very culture had been stolen from them. Then he led us to deliver a well-deserved rebuke to the Establishment, the Elite, the Deep State—whatever you choose to call the people who have spent decades ruining our great country. He revived American democracy.
That’s not how a Cambridge don sees it from the heights of elite privilege in the Motherland. How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman, begins with the horror he, and other professors and students, suffered as they watched President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, “on a large screen in a lecture hall in Cambridge, England.” The new President
looked forbidding and strange. We were scared. Trump’s barking delivery and his crudely effective hand gestures—slicing the thin air with his stubby fingers, raising a clenched fist at the climax of his address—had many of us thinking the same thing: this is what the cartoon version of fascism looks like.
Thus he introduced the dread word on the first page of his Introduction. Runciman especially hated the following sentence from the new President’s address: “Washington flourished—but the people did not share its wealth.” Of course the professor ignored the fact that, as the middle-class incomes stagnated between 1973 and 2016, Washington, D.C., metastasized. When I was growing up in the 1960’s in a Detroit suburb, our area included the wealthiest counties in America, those where the auto executives and engineers North of Motown—which still was called the Paris of the West, but now lies in ruins, its wealth siphoned off by the D.C. Leviathan—resided. In 2017, according to Forbes, the top four counties in the country, as determined by wealth, were suburbs of the Imperial City. Number one was Loudoun County, Virginia, median income $125,900, more than double the U.S. median of $56,500.
Fortunately for Runciman’s health, he soon collected himself and began writing this book. “It took me about fifteen minutes to acclimatise to the idea that this rhetoric was the new normal. . . . It was a populist speech, but populism does not oppose democracy. Rather, it tries to reclaim it from the elites who have betrayed it.” Nevertheless I imagine his colleagues and students are screeching about “fascism.”
When writing about democracy, its supposed “end” especially, it helps to have established a good working definition of the term. Although Runciman never does provide one, he does offer some Twitter-like snippets throughout, which I’ll string together:
[R]egular elections . . . remain the bedrock of democratic politics. But they also encompass democratic legislatures, independent law courts and a free press. . . . The appeal of modern democracy lies in its ability to deliver long-term benefits for societies while providing their individual citizens with a voice. . . . [T]he fundamental premise of representative democracy . . . is that at the allotted time the people get to say when they have had enough of the politicians who have been making decisions for them. . . . The minimal definition of democracy says simply that the losers of an election accept that they have lost. . . . [D]emocracy is civil war without the fighting.
The main part of the book divides into three sections, each with its annoying apostrophe: Coup!, Catastrophe!, Technological Takeover!
In Coup!, Runciman sensibly points out that sometimes we can best study a thing when it ends. His main example is the Regime of the Colonels in Greece after the military’s 1967 coup. Except that it wasn’t the “end” of democracy, but a suspension of it until 1974. He does place the Grecian coup, in which the CIA was deeply involved, in the context of the Cold War; and the Cold War is over today. So why use that example? The fact is the United States in 1967, deeply involved in the Vietnam War and other global struggles with communism, never would have allowed Greece to be ruled by a socialist government closely allied with Moscow-supported communists, any more than Moscow allowed the Czechs to go free in 1968.
Seven years after democracy was restored I was in Greece in October 1981, taking a five-dollar U.S. Air Force hop from Frankfurt in a C-130, trying to see as much of Europe as I could before I left the Army four months later, and witnessed the election there on October 18 as the resurgent Panhellenic Socialist Movement won a landslide over the conservative New Democracy Party. In Athens, every New Democracy poster was effaced with PASOK symbols, and revolution seemed to be in the air. The new prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, had been imprisoned after the 1967 coup. Yet U.S. military officials I talked to at Hellenikon Air Force Base outside Athens didn’t seem all that worried. Nothing of importance, in fact, happened beyond the usual socialist mismanagement, worse even than that of the New Democracy conservatives. This time, PASOK kept the commies at bay in return for the usual lavish infusion of Yankee dollars, and the colonels stayed in their barracks. And by 1981, Reagan and Thatcher were in power and pushing free markets.
Runciman turns to Greece today and notes that the real problem posed by Greek democracy is not the threat of a coup against the leftist Syriza government, even though “Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis spent much of his time in office during 2015 worrying about the imminence of a coup.” During Varoufakis’s brief tenure of six months, the real danger was “the crisis over a potential Greek default on its massive sovereign debt,” in which he “pursued a strategy that challenged Greece’s creditors—including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the member states of the EU, above all Germany—to restructure Greek debt or face the potentially catastrophic consequences of Greece leaving the Eurozone.” Thus, for Varoufakis, “coup” meant waking up in the morning to find the banks shut. Democracy was largely shelved on behalf of the Frankfurt banks.
This is a problem democracies always face: It’s easy to run up debt in the present generation, leaving future generations to worry about its repayment. When the debt comes due, elections, however free, don’t mean much. That process also means erecting welfare states further impervious to democratic change because those getting the benefit, such as Social Security and Medicare recipients, resist any cuts in benefits.
But there actually was a solution available to Greece, and to any country with a debt problem including America: repudiation. Iceland actually chose to do that after her economy crashed in 2008, when banks lost 97 percent of their value, and the stock market 80 percent. Instead of bailing out the banksters, the government put the bank crooks and even ex-PM Geir Haarde (although he eventually got off) on trial. After suffering a depression, Iceland has flourished.
In Catastrophe!, Runciman discusses the sequel to major disasters. He begins with Rachel Carson’s article “Silent Spring,” in The New Yorker in June 1962, which was released as a book the following September and which effectively launched the modern environmentalist movement. “Carson’s picture of a society slowly killing itself. . . . is a vision of how democracy might end, too.” The book led to the large-scale banning of DDT, a highly effective insecticide. Yet Runciman doesn’t note that “Silent Spring” largely has been discredited, including by the Congress for Racial Equality which has described how the incidence of malaria cases rose sharply after the DDT ban, especially in Africa. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded, “DDT is not a carcinogenic hazard to man . . . The use of DDT under the regulations involved here [does] not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds or other wildlife.”
Runciman warns that modern civilization could “blow itself apart,” something that seems rather beyond the theme of the book. More to the point, he continues, “Or it could allow itself to be infected by evil, which its mindless administrative structures spread through the system, aided by faceless bureaucrats.” Indeed, the real threat to democracy, and beyond that to civilization, is the sclerotic bureaucracies that stymie freedom. In Runciman’s own country, the National Health Service refused to let Alfie Evans’s father remove him for medical treatment in Italy, effectively killing the lad. And a U.K. court jailed Tommy Robinson, a right-wing journalist, for 13 months for “contempt of court” for reporting on the current plague of sexual assaults by Muslim gangs on British girls.
Less dramatically, the petty American bureaucracies, from the Department of Motor Vehicles to agencies implementing the Affordable Care Act to those responsible for protecting the borders and prosecuting illegal aliens, ensure that Americans suffer the consequences of postdemocratic misfeasance.
In his Conclusion, Runciman opines that “Mature, Western democracy is over the hill. Its prime is past.” In fact, even in modern, overly bureaucratized societies, there has to be some mechanism that both pacifies the masses and gives them at least some say in governance. In the case of America, although the elites have been trying to stifle Trump and even to drive him from office, there’s at least an understanding that the President is a necessary corrective to many of the country’s political imbalances and excesses.
[How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman (New York: Basic Books) 256 pp., $21.99]
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