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The Confidence Trap

It's not just the United States. Democracies around the world are facing a crisis of faith.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Two stories can be told about democracy over the last hundred years. One is the obvious success story. Democracies have shown that they win wars, recover from economic crises, overcome environmental challenges, and consistently outperform and outlast their rivals. There were very few democracies at the start of the 20th century (on some counts, requiring an open franchise, there were none). Now there are plenty (Freedom House currently puts the number at around 120). Of course, the progress of democracy over this period has not been entirely smooth or consistent. It has been haphazard and episodic: in Samuel Huntington’s famous image, it has come in "waves." Nevertheless, whatever the intermediate ups and downs, there can be little doubt that democracy was the overall winner during the past century, to the point where it was possible to argue, as Francis Fukuyama did more than two decades ago, that liberal democracy is the only plausible answer to the fundamental problems of human history.

But alongside this success story there is another to be told about democracy: one of pessimism and fear. No matter how successful in practice and over time, democracies have always been full of people worried that things are about to go wrong, that the system is in crisis and its rivals are waiting to pounce. The onward march of democracy has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat of intellectual anxiety. Maybe all the good news is just too good to be true. Maybe democracy’s run of luck is about to come to an end. The political history of democracy is a success story. But the intellectual history of democracy is very hard to reconcile with this. It is preoccupied with the prospect of failure.

You can see both these views of democracy at work in the world today. There is still plenty of optimism around. It is not hard to fit the overthrow of autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and the popular appetite for reform across the region into an "end of history" narrative. It may take time, and it may not be pretty, but democracy is spreading to those areas of the world that had previously seemed resistant to it. This is not just true of the Arab world. Democratic government is stabilizing in much of Latin America. It is taking root in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There are even glimmers of progress in previously frozen regimes, such as Burma.

On the other hand, there is plenty of gloom about. For every success, it is possible to identify equivalent setbacks: in Russia, in Zimbabwe, in Thailand. Some of the gloom comes from commentators who warn that events in North Africa and the Middle East are not what they seem. The fall of an autocratic regime in response to popular protests does not necessarily herald the arrival of democracy: sometimes it heralds the arrival of another autocracy, or of civil war. But there is a further anxiety at work too, one related to the recent performance of the world’s established democracies. For while it is true that the last century has been good for them, the last decade has not. Many of the leading democracies have been fighting long and difficult wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) that they do not seem to know how to win or how to exit successfully. Most Western democracies are heavily in debt, thanks in part to these wars but also to a global financial crisis they did much to bring about. In Europe, some of them have come close to default, and there are fears that the United States may be heading the same way. All democracies have found it very difficult to know what, if anything, to do about climate change. And they have been watching with a mixture of resignation and fear the seemingly inexorable rise of China. These are the four fundamental challenges a system of government can face: war, public finance, environmental threat, and the existence of a plausible competitor. It is not clear that the established democracies are doing well in meeting any of them.

So there is a puzzle. History indicates that democracies can cope with whatever is thrown at them. Yet here are the most successful democracies struggling to cope. Things look bad, but the historical record of democracy suggests that nothing is as bad as it seems. This is why we find it so hard to know how seriously to take the current crisis of democracy. We can’t be sure whether it is really a crisis at all. Are we in trouble or not? I believe we are, but not for the reasons usually given. The real problem is that democracy is trapped by the nature of its own success.

Inevitably, as so often in politics, there is a temptation to take sides when thinking about the prospects for democracy. We are faced with what look like either/or questions. Should we heed the good news or the bad news? Was Fukuyama right or wrong? Is America finished, or are the doomsayers going to be proved wrong this time as they have every time in the past? Is the real story the enthusiasm for democracy in the places that haven’t had it before, or the seeming exhaustion of democracy in the places that have had it for a while? If you are an optimist, the long-term benefits of democracy trump the short-term hiccups. But if you are a pessimist, the problems we see around us give the lie to the long-term success story. A lot depends on what counts as "long term." A bad ten years is just a blip in the face of a good hundred years. But a good hundred years is just a blip in the face of two thousand years — from ancient Greece to the mid-19th century — in which democracy was written off as a failure. The critics of democracy over that period always said that in the end the democratic taste for debt and instant gratification, along with a penchant for fighting stupid and impulsive wars, would be its undoing. How can we be sure they weren’t right?

In my book, The Confidence Trap, I want to show how the two stories about democracy go together. It is not a question of choosing between them. Nor is it a question of disaggregating the problem into a series of smaller problems so that we no longer talk about democracy in general, but only particular democracies in particular times and places, some doing well, some doing badly. I still want to talk about democracy in general. The mistake is to think that the news about democracy must be either good or bad. When it comes to democracy good news and bad news feed off each other. Success and failure go hand in hand. This is the democratic condition. It means that the triumph of democracy is not an illusion but neither is it a panacea. It is a trap.

The factors that make democracy work successfully over time — the flexibility, the variety, the responsiveness of democratic societies — are the same factors that cause democracies to go wrong. They produce impulsiveness, and short-termism, and historical myopia. Successful democracies have blind spots, which cause them to drift into disaster. You cannot have the good of democratic progress without the bad of democratic drift. The successes of democracy over the past hundred years have not resulted in more mature, far-sighted, and self-aware democratic societies. Democracy has triumphed, but it has not grown up. Just look around. Democratic politics is as childish and petulant as it has ever been: we squabble, we moan, we despair. This is one of the disorienting things about the predicament we find ourselves in. All the historical evidence that we have accumulated about the advantages of democracy has seemingly left us none the wiser about how to make best use of those advantages. Instead, we keep making the same mistakes.

In my book I focus on particular points of crisis in the history of modern democracy to show why we keep making the same mistakes, even as we make progress. Crises are often perceived as moments of truth, when we discover what’s really important. But democratic crises are not like that. They are moments of deep confusion and uncertainty. Nothing is revealed. The advantages of democracy do not suddenly become clear; they remain jumbled together with the disadvantages. Democracies stumble their way through crises, groping for a way out.

Yet it is this capacity to stumble through crises that gives democracy the edge over its autocratic rivals. Democracies are better at surviving crises than any alternative system because they can adapt. They keep groping for a solution, even as they keep making mistakes. But democracies are no better at learning how to avoid crises than their rivals, and nor are they better at learning from them. It may be that certain types of autocratic regimes are actually the faster learners, particularly when it comes to avoiding the mistakes of the recent past. (Where autocracies tend to fall down is in the assumption that the future will continue to resemble the past.) Their experience of crisis is more likely to make democracies complacent than it is to make them wise: what democracies learn is that they can survive their mistakes. This could still be their undoing if it leads them to make one mistake too many. We have not yet reached the end of history. This is not because Fukuyama was wrong. It is for some of the reasons that Fukuyama was right.

The idea that success and failure go hand in hand is not unique to democracy. It is part of the human condition. It is the essence of tragedy. Hubris can accompany any form of human achievement. The most gifted individuals are often the ones who overreach themselves. Having great knowledge is no guarantor of self-knowledge: intelligent people do the stupidest things. What is true of individuals is also true of political systems. Empires overreach themselves. Successful states become arrogant as they revel in their successes, and they become complacent as they rely on past glories to see them through present difficulties. Great powers decline and fall

However, the democratic predicament cannot be reduced to the general run of human tragedy, and it is not just another stage in the great cycle of political decline and fall. Democracies suffer from a particular kind of hubris. In ancient Rome, triumphant generals were accompanied into the city by slaves whispering in their ears that they too were mortal. Democracies don’t do this to their heroes, because they don’t need to. Successful democratic politicians are constantly being reminded of their own mortality. They can hardly get away from it: the most common experience in a democracy is to suffer abuse, not idolatry. No democratic politician can reach the top without getting used to the catcalls of the crowd. That is why no one in a democracy should ever be taken unawares by failure. If democratic politicians become complacent, it is because they have become inured to the whispers of mortality, not because they have been shielded from them. Autocrats are the ones who are taken by surprise. 

The definitive image of a modern autocrat confronting the catcalls of the crowd came when Nicolae Ceausescu stood on the balcony of the Central Committee Building in Bucharest on Dec. 23, 1989, three days before he and his wife Elena were executed by firing squad. He looked genuinely puzzled: what is that noise? No democratic politician ever looks puzzled like that. The look that sums up democratic complacency is different. It is the face that defeated incumbents wear on election night (think George H. W. Bush in 1992). They don’t look surprised but they do invariably look hurt. Yes, they seem to be saying, I heard the abuse you have been directing my way. How could I not? I read the newspapers. But that’s democracy. I didn’t realize you really meant it. That look is one reason why democratic life is more often comic than it is tragic. 

What is true of individual politicians is also true of democratic societies. Modern-day America is sometimes compared to imperial Rome, since it has some of the trappings of an empire with its best days behind it. But the United States is not Rome because as well as being an empire it is also a functioning modern democracy. That makes it too restless, impatient, querulous, self-critical to qualify as a candidate for late-imperial decadence. Democracies are hardly oblivious to the impending prospect of catastrophe. If anything, they are hypersensitive to it. One of the hallmarks of present-day American democracy is its endless questioning of its own survival prospects. The problem for such democracies is not that they can’t hear the whispers of their own mortality. It’s that they hear them so often they can’t be sure when to take them seriously.

Successful democracies have plenty of institutional safeguards against the hubris of individuals. In an autocracy the danger is that a crazed or self-aggrandizing leader will lead the state over a cliff. In a democracy it is much more difficult for a mad leader or a mad idea to take hold for long. Before they go over the cliff, democracies will vote mad leaders out of office. Regular elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and professionalized bureaucracy all provide protection against being dragged down by the worst kinds of personal misjudgments. In the long run, mistakes in a stable democracy don’t prove calamitous because they don’t become entrenched. That doesn’t stop democracies from making mistakes, however; if anything, it encourages it. It is some consolation in a democracy to know that nothing bad lasts for long, but it is no answer to the question of what should be done in a crisis. Moreover, consolation can produce its own kind of complacency. Knowing that they are safe from the worst effects of hubris can make democracies reckless — what’s the worst that could happen? — as well as sluggish — why not wait for the system to correct itself? That is why the crises keep coming. 

The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris — how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift — was Alexis de Tocqueville. Ever since Tocqueville wrote nearly two hundred years ago, people have been arguing about whether he was really an optimist or a pessimist about democracy. The truth is that he was both, and therefore neither. The grounds for democratic optimism were the source of Tocqueville’s fundamental worries about democracy. This is what made him such an original thinker in his own time and what makes him such an important thinker for ours. He did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions. Tocqueville takes a distinct approach, which makes him the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis.

The history of crises is a story of uncertain fears, missed opportunities, and inadvertent triumphs. It is a tale of contingency and confusion. There are no easy ways out of our current predicament. We are caught in a trap. If there were an easy way out, it would not be a trap. But seeing how we are trapped is an essential part of understanding what the future might hold. 

Tocqueville first identified the ambivalent character of democratic progress by studying America. Since his time, the story of democracy has widened to include other established democracies, including India, Israel, Japan, etc. Nonetheless, the United States remains at the heart of it. The United States remains the place where it can still be seen most clearly. I am not suggesting, any more than Tocqueville was, that America is democracy, nor that democracy is only possible on the American model. But if the American model is being undone by its own success, that has significant implications for democracies everywhere. 

We know a lot more than we used to about how democracies succeed and why. What we don’t know is what to do with this knowledge. That is the problem.

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