The Future of Democracy

By Mark Mazower – October 25, 2013

Financial Times

Are western democracies losing the ability to learn from their own mistakes?

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, by David Runciman, Princeton, RRP£19.95/$29.95, 408 pages

Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience, by Stein Ringen, Yale, RRP£20/$35, 264 pages

The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy, by Philip Coggan, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 320 pages

Despised and mistrusted for more than 2,000 years, democracy found itself in favour once again in the late 18th century. Its rise after that was not instantaneous but somehow it ended up the default mode of modern politics, first in the US, then in western Europe. By the end of the 20th century, it was spreading rapidly around the world.

For a few years now, however, things have not been going so well. The idea of democracy promotion as a foreign policy goal has been downgraded under the Obama administration, and the “transition to democracy” has started to seem like more of a hopeful phrase than an accurate prognosis for countries in the Maghreb and the Middle East. Since the onset of the financial crisis in the west, the debate has been heating up in the democratic heartlands. Is democracy itself in crisis? If so, why? And what can we do to fix it?

David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap, Stein Ringen’s Nation of Devils and Philip Coggan’s The Last Vote are all responses to this anxiety. And although there are many differences of approach, tone and conclusion among them, they have quite a lot in common too. One feature that perhaps goes without saying is that all are written by democrats – it has been unimaginable for decades to discuss politics in polite society in the west from any other vantage point. All move rather quickly, too, past the question of why they are democrats, or what this actually means.

The political scientist Jacob Talmon once coined the term “totalitarian democracy” to highlight the pretensions of both fascism and communism to a democratic inheritance. Even if one does not follow Talmon, the slippery quality of the term is striking. Fascist theoretician Giovanni Gentile wrote that fascism was “the most genuine form of democracy”; and while they inveighed against parliamentary democracy, Nazis denied that the Third Reich was a dictatorship and developed their own conception of “Germanic democracy” into the bargain. We need not take such claims at face value. But they do remind us that the problem of definition is not an easy one.

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