David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends* thankfully doesn’t have the subtitle which seems to adorn so many books with hand-wringing titles these days: and what we can do about it. After spelling out a host of threats to democracy, Runciman admits he doesn’t have a solution. He reckons that democracy now is in a middle-aged state of life, and various diseases beckon as old age appears. These form the three chapters at the core of the book – Coup, Catastrophe and Technology. I wouldn’t want to recap his arguments, which are succinctly and astutely put – Runciman after all is an Oxbridge politics don – but they do deserve a wider audience, particularly amongst our political class.
What is democracy? Runciman offers a simple definition, ‘which 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.’ (p.13) What could be simpler? But later, we learn that ‘Contemporary political science has devised a range of terms . . . ‘audience democracy’, ‘spectator democracy’, ‘plebiscitary democracy’. These terms might be too mild: ‘zombie democracy’ might be better. The basic idea is that people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold applause at the appropriate moments. Democratic politics has become an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention. The increasing reliance on referendums in many democracies fit this pattern.’ (p.47)
Might this not always have been the case? Hasn’t our democracy always tended towards the audience model, rather than a participatory one? As an anarchist slogan has it, whoever you vote for the government always wins. Of course, if no-one voted the government would still win, although that’s probably not what the anarchist meant. As things stand, governments are elected by minorities. Theresa May won a mere 31% share of the vote in 2017, or 26.8% of the electorate. Tony Blair did worse in 2005 – winning the votes of just 24.5% of the electorate, but thanks to the system he banked a 60+ overall majority. (Whilst looking at these figures, I think it must gall Blairites to know that Corbyn’s numerical support in 2017 exceeded all but Blair’s since 1997.)
As Runciman makes plain, it is the fact that even with as flawed a system as democracy is, its strength leads to non-violent changes in political leadership. Even with nearly three million fewer votes than Clinton, Trump’s election occurred without violence, as was the case in the parallel circumstances of Bush v. Gore. Of course, the absence of violence is a fine thing – a sign of a civilised society – but is that it? Democracy seems to permit every other kind of nefarious behaviour short of violence. The ‘greatest democracy on Earth’ as some Americans like to think of it allows wide scale gerrymandering, secret funding, voter suppression, plain lying and now, hidden malevolent technological influences made possible by algorithms. Such things can only enhance the realisation of an ‘audience democracy.’
Another issue which Runciman addresses is the oft inability of democracy to deliver what it says on the tin, or more starkly, what is the right thing to do. An example is climate change. This is where we encounter the cognitive dissonant democracy, where politicians (in the main) know what the right thing to do is and pay lip service to the necessary changes, but are immobilised by fears of an electoral backlash. The most radical political steps are often kicked into NIMTO – Not In My Term of Office.
Runciman doesn’t see democracy ending anytime soon, but like any middle aged person, more intimations of its mortality will occur. How to keep it alive? An infusion of fresh thinking is required, along with a readiness to make changes. In the U.S. the Constitution is a barrier to change, even if people like Trump seem willing to ignore the Constitution when it suits. In the U.K., where we are apparently ‘taking back control’ there has been virtually no debate about what that means in the real world. In the E.U. a great opportunity was missed when there was much talk of subsidiarity, but little conviction in it. Decision making closer to the people? Local authorities are denuded of money, which makes significant decision making all but nugatory.
As Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The question therefore is: how do we get rid of the people who are these ‘same’ thinkers? Just another election?
*Profile Books, 2018