David Runciman is head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge University and host of the popular podcast Talking Politics. Danielle Charette and Jacob Hamburger interviewed him last week in Chicago about his most recent book, How Democracy Ends.
Originally published on Tocqueville 21, a Franco-American web magazine about contemporary democracy, this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Jacob Hamburger: Your presentation of the “end” of democracy rests on a distinction between three different time-scales. First, we go back to Athens; second, the American and French revolutions; and third, the rise of mass suffrage and the bureaucratic state after World War I. … I’m interested in your thoughts on how Tocqueville’s idea of “equality of conditions” might “end” in the same way you think about these other stories ending.
David Runciman: The long story has, at its heart, an idea of a form of equality—of political equality—and the idea that we can control our own fate. That’s the deep-buried thing. But it’s a mistake to think even that is timeless. Some ideas are dead. No one now believes in the divine right of kings. Equality could end up like that too. There must be a serious possibility that we move to a form of social and political and economic and moral organization where that idea seems dead. I don’t think we’re there yet, but there are glimpses of it in our world. In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari writes that we are at the end of history, not for Francis Fukuyama’s reasons, but because history is the story of human beings believing that they can control their own fate—and that’s about to end, because we’re about to enter the phase when we will just become data points in a vast information-processing system. Now, if he’s right, and that happens in the next fifty years, then that is the end of the idea of deep democracy.
Danielle Charette: Your central theme is that our democracy is “middle-aged.” Is a middle-aged democracy just utterly unable to cope with such an apocalyptic vision?
DR: Well, it’s “middle-aged” only in our relatively short story. It’s not middle-aged in the long story. This thing that we think of as democracy is a product of the First and Second World Wars. In stable democracies, we’re seventy, or maybe one hundred years in. To say it’s middle-aged is to say, like with middle-aged people, your life is not over. You can change your life. It doesn’t have to be like this. There may be points when you think it’s just all pointless, a long (or short) road to oblivion, but you can reinvent yourself. You can decide what’s of real value.
Part of growing old as a human being and of moving into old age is that you have to make some choices. But if you make the right choices, your life could become better. So, I’m arguing against the idea that we’re just on the edge of the abyss. We’re in the middle of some story. The point of it is that change is really hard, particularly when you’re quite comfortable—which democracies are. We sometimes think it’s easier than it is because we think we’re younger than we are. We think we’re teenage democracies, where the upside is much bigger and the downside is much bigger, where the future is wide-open. Middle-aged people find it really hard to change. So maybe no, you can’t cope. Also, speaking as a middle-aged person, I can say that we learn lots of good avoidance techniques. You become quite skilled at not facing the bad stuff.
DC: In other words, it’s time for some serious psychotherapy.
DR: Yes! I say in the book, part of what’s needed is therapy, because democracies are acting out. They’re middle-aged and behaving as if they’re much younger. Part of it is nostalgia and part of it is a midlife crisis. They’re just doing these insane things! But the solution to a midlife crisis is not to buy the motorbike or have the affair—it’s to get therapy.
JH: The book is primarily about Western European and American democracy, so you’re not necessarily attributing these characteristics to democracies around the world.
DR: Definitely not.
JH: But then the question is, to what extent does what happens in these advanced democracies, these middle-aged democracies, spill over into democracies in other parts of the world? Brazilian democracy is about the same age as Spanish or Portuguese democracy, which we’d have the instinct to see as closer to your story. But, then when you look at what’s going on in Brazil, the consequences start to resemble the crises of the “young” democracies of the 1930s.
DR: I think that’s right. It’s important to say that this is not just a crude number-of-years thing. It’s, as it were, the time in which the various elements that make a stable democracy have come together. Spanish democracy looks pretty stable to me, and it’s only, what, forty years old? But Brazilian democracy looks a lot less stable. But even during those forty years, it’s been less stable. Spain had the advantage that it was quickly taken into a stable European order. With somewhere like Brazil, you could argue there hasn’t been a very long period at all where democracy feels like the bedrock of politics. It feels quite contingent. It is, unquestionably much more vulnerable. In the same way, I think Turkish democracy is quite a long story, and Turks will tell you it’s at least a hundred years old. But it’s not continuous; it’s been punctuated by coups, as in the Brazilian case. It’s not stable, and bits of the package have always been really contested.
Indian democracy is relatively old in these terms, and in some respects has a middle-aged feel to it. But, in other respects, it looks much younger and more open, with both upsides and downsides. So I definitely don’t think you can just find the date of the democratic constitution, calculate the years, and say—using J. Richard Gott’s “Copernican principle”—we’re half-way through, so Brazil will be fine for the next forty years! Brazil may not be fine for the next forty weeks. But I don’t think, even in those forty years, it was ever secure for forty-week periods.
JH: One a way that people often describe the current moment is to say that we’re in the age of “strongman politics.” People talk about a “strongman international,” between Trump, Orbán, Putin, Erdoğan, Modi, and now, Bolsonaro. And what’s powerful about your metaphor of the middle-aged man buying a motorcycle is that there’s something really impotent about it. Trump is the best example, because he’s this guy who likes to talk tough but is in fact a very weak and ineffective leader.
DR: Absolutely. There is an axis of politics which is uncannily similar, in so many ways: the role of families (particularly daughters), the use of social media (not just Twitter, but particularly Twitter), the rhetorical tropes, the conspiracies. It’s almost as if they went to conspiracy theory school together. So yes, that applies regardless whether the democracy is two hundred years old, or, in the Hungarian case, 25 years old. The politicians seem to be behaving in the same way.
But I think that kind of political behavior is very different in different situations. I wrote a piece a few months ago in the London Review of Books, the headline of which is “The U.S. is not Hungary.” In the Hungarian case, this politics is not impotent, because the institutions are impotent, actually. The institutions were weak and shallow; they had shallow roots. I think it makes a huge difference if there is a society where no one has a memory of anything other than stable democratic politics, and a society where half the population lived half their lives with a different kind of politics and where the rule of law and a free media are, for most people, things they never even grew up with. So the strongman in Hungary has, like Putin, co-opted the institutions.
That rhetoric in the United States just bounces off some very durable and robust institutions. People say that Orbán has captured the Supreme Court, and now Trump is capturing the U.S. Supreme Court. No he’s not! He’s put on the Supreme Court two completely conventional, mainstream judges. He hasn’t put “Trump judges.” He might try, but he will fail. There’s no way the Supreme Court has been captured by Trump. It’s been captured by the Republican Party, but that’s been a fifty-year project. That’s not a strongman project at all.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric can galvanize political violence, including street violence. With Trump, there’s been some violence, I know. A BBC journalist got mildly beaten up. Now, I’m not trying to downplay that. But seriously, that’s not the breakdown of democracy. It’s pretty unpleasant, but, in Brazil, people voted for Bolsonaro because they wanted guns. And in India, like in China, there are one hundred million young men who will not find a partner because one hundred million women are missing. Now, you throw “strongman” rhetoric into that society, and it’s different from throwing that rhetoric into a society of Medicare, Medicaid, and angry Midwesterners. I think we overstate the rhetorical similarity, both between countries and across time. Take someone from the 1930s and show them our world, and yes, they will recognize the way these strongmen do politics. But the overall story is different.
DC: Maybe it’s just that our horizon for hope has narrowed, but having written a book titled How Democracy Ends, you seem, for the moment, relatively optimistic.
DR: There’s a very different take in the U.S. than in the U.K. People in the U.K. think that it’s quite a depressing book. And in the U.S., my publisher read it, and she said, “This book really cheered me up.” And I said, “Why?” She replied, “Because I genuinely thought Trump was the end of democracy, and you’re saying it’s going to survive!”
Brexit is like living through a really boring bureaucratic nightmare. Trump is like living through a soap opera. And Brexit is just soul-destroying, because it’s pointless and no one knows what’s going on. For people in Britain, this story, which is of more gradual decline and being stuck in middle age and wanting to change but being afraid to change, chimes to the moment. It seems to Brits: this is how democracy ends. It might take fifty years, but we’re just winding this thing down. Whereas in the U.S., there’s now this sense that if we can survive the next two years, it’s going to be great again! We’ll elect Kamala Harris, and it’ll be rainbows!
DC: Perhaps one of the sources for hopefulness is how you describe the different temporal metaphors. Tocqueville begins with man in the cradle: man is born. And Arendt runs with that; there’s so much focus on natality. But I know you have a longstanding interest in Hobbes, who is motivated by the reality of death. Do you see the middle-age metaphor as a compromise between death and natality?
DR: It’s absolutely part of the point. I’m doing two things by saying we’re middle-aged. I’m saying that societies are literally full of old people, and that the institutions are quite old and tired, too. We know more about what it is for a person to be fifty, sixty, seventy years old than about what it is for a democracy to be fifty, sixty, or seventy years old. There is some despair about growing old, but for the most part, people don’t actually give up hope.
I saw a story in the paper yesterday on human contentment. There’s an arc from ages fifty to seventy where measurable happiness actually increases. That cheered me up, since I’m fifty-one! The human condition is not that, once you get past a certain point, you’re just waiting for death. The best years may be ahead of you. But you can’t hanker for your youth. You have to believe that you are capable of change. You will be miserable if you just cling on to the thing that you have. After you park your motorbike in the garage, after you have a bit of therapy, you have to actually think: what do I want to do with the rest of my life? And it’s the same with democracy. We shouldn’t quit elections. But maybe we should do citizens’ democracy. Maybe let’s actually think local democracy is more important than national democracy. I don’t know if that’s optimism, but it’s anti-fatalism.
JH: On that note, last night, you touched briefly on the New Green Deal. And elsewhere you’ve advocated another experimental idea: extending the vote to children. When we’re taking about how democracy moves past its middle age, do you think a big ambitious project, like the Green New Deal, is enough in itself, inserted into the normal election cycle, to do that? A more pessimistic take that you hear a lot is, that that’s a great idea, but societies will only go through real radical change when there’s a depression or a war.
DR: I slightly regret that proposal for giving the vote to six-year-olds. I still believe it, but it became a news story in the U.K. My son, who’s now at university, read the story in the Guardian and said, if he had to summarize it, the headline he would have put on it is, “Cambridge academic ties shoelaces together and falls over in public.”
But what surprised me most about advocating the vote for six-year-olds was that it provoked outrage. I got torrents of messages—and I’m not on Twitter, so people have to take the trouble to email me! I wanted to ask, what’s so dangerous about this? What do you think the risk is here, relative to these insane risks that we’re running with a political system that clearly can’t cope? If you were to lower the voting age to six, all that would happen is that politicians would have to go into schools, so they would probably end up behaving better. What’s the worst that would happen? It’s not as if six-year-olds would run the country. There aren’t enough of them!
Somehow, we’ve got our risk profiles wrong. We know we need to do something big and dramatic, but we won’t touch the thing that’s the barrier in our way of doing something big and dramatic. People seem to think that the danger is in constitutional or electoral reform when the planet is burning. I don’t get it. People say we need something like a Green New Deal—a radical new politics—but we won’t touch the political system that we have, because that’s too dangerous, which to me is insane.
JH: Are you saying even the Green New Deal isn’t radical enough, because it doesn’t touch the way politics is organized?
DR: Well it is radical. It wants to radically change what the state does. It’s pretty ambitious, but without fundamentally being brave about the democracy that we have. I think in the U.S., it’s very hard, isn’t it, to sound like you’re not fully signed up. Even if you’re Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you have to still believe in the founding myths, don’t you?
DC: It’s probably easier to go after the myths that the electoral structure.
DR: Right. I’m not saying it’s just a question of reforming the electoral structure and then the Green New Deal would flow through. It’s more that, in middle age, there are things you think you can and can’t change. And where middle-aged people go wrong is they change the wrong things. They don’t address the thing at the root. They have the affair, they buy the motorbike. They don’t address what’s making them unhappy.
JH: Is it also that you have to fit your ideas for a radical future into these familiar past categories, like the New Deal?
DR: Yes, it’s really striking to me. We’re so obsessed with the 1930s. It’s either fascism, or the New Deal. To which I would say: it’s definitely neither fascism, nor the New Deal. There are these motifs, and the New Deal is one of them. People have been looking for the “New” New Deal for a long time. This is not the 1930s. The social, and the economic, and, frankly, the cultural conditions are not the same.
JH: Is there something about our moment in history that makes us look for these easy comparisons? Or is that just how people do politics, giving voters something they can recognize?
DR: We’re in a phase where we’re going to see quite a lot of new politics and coalition-building. It’s happening a lot around Europe: some really surprising, new—not always particularly attractive—coalitions being built across various social, educational, generational divides. There’s a big prize in particular for the politician who can bridge either the educational or the generational divide
That’s another thing about being middle-aged, which is you have more past experience to draw upon. If you’re eighteen, you don’t spend your time thinking, which bit of my life does this remind me of? You think that you’ve just become an adult, and the future is open. If you are America, you have too much baggage, because you’ve got a life that you’ve lived, and it’s really hard. And if you’re Hungary, there isn’t a democratic story, so Orbán tells the thousand years of Christendom. The hard thing is recognizing that the future is still open.
JH: When you look at the Gilets Jaunes movement, do you see this sort of deep questioning going on?
DR: You do, and it touches on a really striking feature of democratic politics around the world: the educational question. Traditionally, in representative democracy, elected representatives were a class apart. Today, educated people look at politicians and think: They’re just like us. What gives them the right to rule and not us? Everyone else looks at politicians and thinks: Not only are they nothing like us, but they’re like all those other people. What gives that whole group the right?
DC: So neither the trustee nor the delegate model of representation, but the disgruntled neighbor model?
DR: Yes, that anger is real. There have got to be ways to channel this better than the Yellow Vests movement. But it is striking that it’s got such legs. And its supporters are saying, we’re going to bring down Macron. This man—who won by 66 percent—he’s not legitimate in their eyes. That is radical. It’s not the violence. The violence is radical too, but it’s familiar. What is quite unusual, in the history of the successful period of modern democracy, is to reject representation.
JH: I get the sense you’re excited about some of these calls for infusing democracy with new kinds of participation structures, but at the same time, I hear some deep skepticism about the ability to actively take the referendums that the Yellow Vests want to integrate into the French system and actually fuse those with what we’ve got now.
DR: I think we should be excited and open, particularly in systems that have been remarkably unchanging. We forget how weird it is that some of the basic arrangements of our democracy have remained unchanged over decades, and in some cases hundreds of years. We should be excited by the thought that we’re starting, finally, to change some of that. But it’s really hard. And part of what makes it hard is that people always say, but we don’t want to actually change it. We just want to add things on that make it work better. That’s the basic thought: We’ll introduce citizens’ assemblies or forms of deliberation, or forms of participation, or maybe even replace the House of Lords with a randomly selected group in order to enhance the basic function of the representative assembly. It’ll make it work better.
Well, first of all, it probably won’t work better. They’ll be in tension with one another. And second of all, why is the project a rescue project? Why isn’t it a radical rethinking? And you do see examples—Brexit being the classic—where people think, we’ve got this system, it’s a bit tired, it doesn’t really work, so we’ll give it a little injection of popular participation and then we’ll let the system live with the consequences. The society isn’t going to fall apart, but politics is just going to grind to a halt. British politics is just in quick sand.
DC: Finally, I know you’re fascinated by Silicon Valley culture, where at the fringes, there are people who want to abolish death. If someone came to you with that proposal, is that an example of radical new thinking? Or is that a refusal of reality and of democracy?
DR: It fits with the middle-aged metaphor. The other way you can go with this is to try to jump straight to immortality. I think it’s dangerous, and also weird. And there’s something abhorrent about the sense of privilege of someone who would use his tens of billions to try to buy himself eternal life. I don’t want Peter Thiel-style radicalism: “just smash it up and see what happens.” That seems what it’s always been: pretty irresponsible. I believe in political responsibility. I believe politics is thinking about the unintended consequences of what you do. I believe people should be answerable for their actions. And abolishing death seems to cut against that.
JH: Is this related to why you think Mark Zuckerberg is a bigger threat than Donald Trump? Both are irresponsible, but Zuckerberg might have more power to do what he actually wants to do with democracy than Trump does?
DR: The thing with Trump is, what you see is what you get. We understand the accountability framing around him. He understands it too. He sees the barriers, just as we do. And they might break, but, in a way, we know what it would be to hold him down. With Zuckerberg, it’s much harder to see, and some of the conventional restraints within his own corporation are unconstrained. And it’s not like the shareholders are holding him to account.
I’m more frightened by people who don’t understand their power than the people who do. I’m sure Trump is a more malevolent human being than Zuckerberg, who’s apparently a bit weird, but a perfectly okay guy. But with Trump, there’s this sense that he’s contained in a form that both he and the people around him have a sense of what’s going on. But with Zuckerberg, I think he was genuinely surprised to discover what his instrument was being used for, yet he believes his good intentions will make it alright. I think that’s scarier. I’m more scared of a well-intentioned person running an out-of-control super machine, which is neither accountable nor actually comprehended by most people, than by a nasty old man in the White House. The nasty old man will be gone relatively soon.
There’s a form of irresponsibility which is a form of obliviousness. And Trump is not oblivious. He has a sense of what this is about, and so do his opponents. Just watch the State of the Union. Everyone knows what they’re doing. But you can’t think of an equivalent to that with Zuckerberg. He occasionally publishes one of his manifestos, and you read it and wonder, what is this?
DC: And he’s a relatively young man.
DR: Who might live forever….