The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman

| September 4, 2014
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9780691148687_p0_v1_s260x420The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, David Runciman (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013), 408 pp., $29.95 cloth.

“This is what happens when democracies try to take advantage of their historical advantages,” writes David Runciman. “They mess up” (p. 273). In The Confidence Trap, Runciman draws on Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of nineteenth-century American democracy to assess the strengths and diagnose the ills that have beset mature democratic societies from the early twentieth century to the present. The result is a clear and plausible articulation of democracy’s central dilemma, paired with a far less definite treatment of its implications for the conduct of public affairs, either in the past or today.

Runciman identifies and analyzes seven crises of democracy—from the end of World War I to the 2008 financial collapse—to demonstrate three characteristics of democracy that, in his view, have so far proven universal. Runciman credits Tocqueville with articulating the first two; the last Runciman extrapolates from his reading of the master.

First, argues Runciman, the strengths of democracies are both undeniable and “hidden,” lying in an unpredictable social dynamism that their institutions cannot fix in any optimal state or “moment of truth” (pp. 3, 6, 10, 33). Second, these proven but hidden strengths encourage a schizophrenic form of “fatalism” among democratic populations. An almost mystical faith in both their virtue and their ultimate capacity to solve all problems puts democratic societies on constant alert for threats to combat and problems to solve. Yet the same view of democracy’s mysterious power encourages complacency in the face of such challenges as well as uncertainty over what specific strengths should be employed to meet them, prompting the urge to wait and let events take their natural (and probably happy) course (pp. 13–14). Swinging from one extreme to the other and never resting between them, democratic societies manufacture crises where none exist and overlook real crises until they are dire. This is the “confidence trap” of the book’s title (p. 11).

Finally, warns Runciman, democracy’s history of surviving crises, combined with frustration at its muddling and inefficient manner of doing so, has frequently led democratic societies and their leaders into an extreme version of the confidence trap: a futile and costly attempt to identify democracy’s truly essential strengths and to remodel public institutions to maximize them, which merely blinds democracy to its next true crisis or, as the disappointing results pile up, saps the energy to deal with crises at all (pp. 293–94).

By demonstrating the recurrence of the confidence trap throughout the twentieth century, Runciman hopes both to establish its inherence in the very nature of democracy as well as better prepare today’s democratic societies to deal with it. Like Tocqueville, he seeks to explore how democracies might be educated rather than merely buffeted by crises. At the same time, however, he is especially keen to put readers on guard against naïve efforts “to capture the democratic future in the present,” and to remind them instead that “democracy lives from moment to moment” (p. 74). The result of this paradoxical quest is often stimulating, but ultimately frustrating.

I will not attempt to summarize Runciman’s seven case studies. His chapters quite adeptly interweave multiple strands of international history, but only in a few instances— the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918, the U.S.-Soviet rift after World War II, the financial crisis of 2008—is a single crisis unifying those strands clearly identified. In any case, Runciman is more interested and much more successful in explaining the abstract logic of the confidence trap. It certainly seems true, as Runciman argues, that democracies survive, at least in part, because they resist attempts to “pin democracy down” (p. 75). There is no ideal state of democratic institutions or culture; ironically, that is what makes a democracy, in a constantly changing world, the closest thing possible to an ideal state. A democracy can change, and the freedoms that permit its citizens to create or demand such changes also permit themto make rash decisions, resist tough choices, and put their faith in grandiose schemes that justify the former and obviate the latter.

Yet it soon becomes clear that Runciman’s theory of democracy resembles the political phenomenon it purports to describe: its vagueness encourages profligate claims while discouraging disciplined applications. Runciman never defines democracy, either in institutional terms or as a set of specific moral or social aims. This permits him to make generalizations about democracy’s inescapably “haphazard” and “inadvertent” character (pp. 223, 294, 323), while ignoring moments when the political and social flexibility he considers to be democracy’s essentialvirtue found durable institutional embodiment through intentional policymaking. While the U.S. Constitution is outside his time horizon, Runciman glosses over other such examples or treats them tendentiously. West Germany’s Basic Law, for instance, brought stability and prosperity to an electoral democracy while keeping the door open to major adaptation, namely unification with a reformed East Germany. Yet to maintain Runciman’s dichotomy between democracy’s inadvertent but successful adaptations, on the one hand, and its idealistic but doomed efforts to organize itself, on the other, the adoption of the Basic Law is chalked up to “muddling through” rather than visionary democratic statesmanship.

At times, however, it seems Runciman might agree with the argument that making provisions for future change is at least one necessary defining feature of democratic statesmanship. Indeed, he comes closest to defining democracy through repeated association with the terms “experimental” and “experimentation.” But these terms are not defined either. Thus, a program such as Woodrow Wilson’s vision for a League of Nations, which was designed to facilitate deliberative revision of the Versailles settlement over time (dependent, of course, on expected U.S. participation), does not count as experimental, while Franklin Roosevelt’s dismantling of the 1933 London Economic Conference to keep his domestic options open does (chapters 1 and 2). The impression is that experimentation excludes reliance on deliberative process and can never imply large and clear goals—again, only muddling through (see also pp. 213–14). Nor does it denote a means of learning from failure: “It is too much to expect democracies to learn the right lesson fromeach crisis they survive,” Runciman writes. Rather, “they survive the crisis and move on, which means they move on to the next one” (p. 183).

The clear implication is that there is no “right lesson” to learn: democracy is too protean (and democrats, perhaps, too dense). In every chapter this sentiment is repeated. It appears the Tocquevillian dream of democratic education is as elusive as Wilson’s new world order and as fevered as Lyndon Johnson’s napalm diplomacy in Southeast Asia.

It is thus jarring to encounter the suggestion in Runciman’s epilogue that the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis might be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to fix democracy’s problems (p. 297). The purported difference from past crises is one of degree and context. “The cumulative success of democracy has created the conditions for systemic failure,” Runciman argues; democracies have for too long merely coped with or avoided problems such as indebtedness, inequality, and environmental damage rather than solve them (p. 296). On the other hand, he tells us, never before have so many people been committed to democracy or had as many historical examples of its operation, adaptation, and survival (pp. 298–99). This suggestion is not a little disorienting in light of the previous seven chapters, each of which reiterates the inability of democracies to translate past experience into future control. Even more confusing is the identification of four major “challenges” facing democracy—war, finance, environment, and rivals—with no indication of how they should be met or even analyzed, aside from keeping in mind how inept democracies are at strategizing their actions and shaping their futures. “This is the democratic predicament,” Runciman concludes his book. “Knowing the difficulties doesn’t tell us how to steer. But it is better to know” (p. 326). Leaving us to wonder, why?


The author is an intellectual, political, and international historian residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of several articles on the history of American social thought and politics, as well as two forthcoming books: William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic and Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American Internationalist Experiment.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 28.3

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