American democracy is going through one of its periodic bouts of self-loathing. The public disapproves of the performance of all the branches of government, even the Supreme Court. Approval ratings for Congress are so low it is tempting to wonder about the sanity of the small number of people who still express confidence in it. The recent shutdown in Washington provoked a furious round of critical commentary from academics and pundits across the political spectrum. There is near unanimity: This is no way to run a government.
These recent travails have also provided plenty of material for commentators who see in every setback evidence of a broader decline. The historian Niall Ferguson has been predicting the unwinding of American power and influence for more than a decade. In the last few years, his warnings have gathered pace: Every time America's politicians lumber into another hole, Ferguson says I told you so. Even onetime optimists like Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, are undergoing a crisis of faith.
Yet there is nothing new about this outburst of disgust with the workings of democracy. Nor is it distinctively American. Europeans (with the possible exception of Germans) are just as disenchanted with their elected politicians. Lamenting the failings of democracy is a permanent feature of democratic life, one that persists through governmental crises and successes alike.
There is no decade from the past century when it is not possible to find an extended debate among commentators and intellectuals in the democratic West about the inadequacies of democratic politics. This is not true of only those decades when Western democracy was clearly on the ropes, like the 1930s, when it was menaced by fascism, or the 1970s, when it was threatened by inflation and oil shock. It's also true of the prosperous and relatively stable decades as well. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann led the charge, arguing that democratic publics were far too ill-informed and inattentive to manage their own affairs. In the 1950s, academics worried about the banality and exhaustion of democratic life. Daniel Bell took a positive stance with his claims about the end of ideology, but for the most part democracy was treated as a cumbersome, careless system of government, in permanent danger of being outwitted by the Soviets.
The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure.
Even the 1980s, which we now look back on as a time of emergent democratic triumphalism, were dominated by prophecies of doom. Consider the two best-selling academic books from the end of that decade. One, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), argued that the endemic triviality of mass democracy would destroy the minds of the young, leaving them unable to distinguish good from bad. (Bloom blamed, among other people, Mick Jagger.) The second, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), foretold American decline as the demands of sustaining a global empire would overwhelm the capacity of the American people to put up with them.
The history of modern democracy is a tale of steady success accompanied by the constant drumbeat of anticipated failure. The intellectual commentator who first spotted this distinctive feature of democratic life (and who did most to explain it) was Alexis de Tocqueville. When he traveled to America, in 1831, Tocqueville was immediately struck by the frenetic and mindless quality of democratic politics. Citizens were always complaining, and their politicians were endlessly throwing mud at one another. The grumbling discontent was frequently interrupted by bursts of outright panic as resentments spilled over.
Yet Tocqueville noticed something else about American democracy: that underneath the chaotic surface, it was quite stable. Citizens' discontent coincided with an underlying faith that democratic politics would see them right in the end.
A political system like this creates plenty of space for writers and intellectuals to tut-tut and throw up their hands in horror. Why? First, and most obviously, democratic politics entails free speech, which must include the freedom to say that democracy doesn't work. Second, democracy is, as Tocqueville put it, an "untimely" form of government. Its strengths are revealed only in the long run, once its restless energy produces the adaptability that allows it to correct its own mistakes. At any given moment, democracy tends to look a mess: shallow, petty, and vituperative. Democracies are bad at rising to the occasion. What they are good at is chopping and changing course so that no occasion is too much for them. Finally, rationalist modern intellectuals are inherently suspicious of blind political faith. It is unnerving to encounter a political system that works only because ordinary people believe that it works. Ordinary citizens get frustrated with the workings of democracy but rarely, if ever, give up on it. The people who tend to lose faith are intellectuals who can't reconcile themselves to the mismatch between the glorious promise of democratic life and its grubby reality.
However, this deep-seated bias in favor of counsels of despair encourages contrarian intellectual arguments that things are nowhere near as bleak as they look. In the 1830s, the prevailing view in Europe was that American democracy could not last, because it was so obviously inadequate for the serious business of politics (especially conducting war and public finance). Americans were prone to panics and busts, and they were prey to political charlatans peddling fantasies of rebirth and renewal. Compared with European monarchy, democracy looked like a petulant and childish system of government. Tocqueville achieved instant and lasting fame by insisting that American democracy would not only last, but was in fact the wave of the future. Its energy and adaptability gave democracy the ultimate advantage over any rival system of government.
More recently, other intellectuals have assumed Tocqueville's role as contrarian prophets of democracy's inevitable triumph. The run of doomy academic blockbusters at the end of the 1980s was broken in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama published "The End of History," which achieved its immediate impact because it was so unusual to hear the positive side of the story put in such forceful terms. Fukuyama never claimed to be explaining the events of 1989 as they were unfolding. His was a long-term take on democracy's advantages. (Like Hegel, he dated the triumph of the forces of progress back to the Battle of Jena, in 1806.) Nonetheless, his timing was impeccable. The argument that liberal democracy had seen off all alternative forms of modern politics by dint of the dignity it conferred onto its citizens and the adaptability it allowed to its governments looked profoundly prescient.
The irony is that Fukuyama was no more cheerful than the typical intellectual commentator on democratic politics. In fact, he was remarkably gloomy. Drawing on a range of earlier writers who included Tocqueville as well as Nietzsche, he came to believe that the triumph of democracy was rife with peril. Any system of government that has all the long-term advantages is liable to become stale and facile in its everyday operations. Democratic citizens would no longer be incentivized to make big decisions or to seize control of their destiny. They would have little reason to take politics seriously at all. "The end of history," Fukuyama wrote, "will be a very sad time." Democracy's ability to outlast its rivals would leave it exposed to its own inherent banality.
The economist Jagdish Bhagwati described the appearance of "The End of History" as "a primeval scream of joy by a warrior with a foot astride his fallen prey," a caricature that has stuck. Indeed, Fukuyama's fate (the academic worrier who became mistakenly known as a triumphant cold warrior) was shared by a small number of other intellectuals during the period. When the victory of democracy unexpectedly arrived, a search was undertaken to discover who had seen it coming. Very few had. Kennedy was routinely mocked. Bloom was soon forgotten. Instead it was the members of an earlier generation who were heralded as the true prophets. One was George Kennan, the intellectual architect of "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment," who had argued in 1947 that the West could defeat the Soviet Union only by outlasting it. When that was indeed what happened, at the end of the 1980s, Kennan was hailed as the wisest of the wise. So too was the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who had consistently argued for the long-term advantages of market economies over planned systems of government. When Hayek was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1991, the director of policy planning at the White House declared: "More than almost anyone else in the 20th century, this guy was vindicated by the events in Eastern Europe." By this point Hayek, now in his 90s, was too old and infirm to appear in public.
But though Hayek was no doubt happy to be proved right, it seems unlikely that he shared in the general sense of euphoria. He was deeply suspicious of democracy, which he feared had a tendency to squander its long-term advantages with ill-disciplined pandering to the short-term interests of the voters. He believed that a secure democratic future required strict constitutional safeguards to constrain the democratic preference for cheap money, public debt, and limitless entitlements. His anxiety would have been that victory in the cold war might encourage democracies that had been running large budget deficits and funding extensive welfare states to think they had got away with it.
In the early 1990s, Hayek was heralded by the triumphalists as one of the architects of democracy's success. Now he is invariably cited on the side of the doom-mongers as the thinker who foresaw better than anyone else the almighty bust that is coming if wasteful democracy does not mend its ways. Hayek himself is partly to blame, as his writing contains intermittent bursts of both sunny reassurance and the darkest forebodings concerning the prospects for democracy. (He tended to be sunniest when others were gloomy and gloomiest when others were sunny.)
Kennan, who was also approaching his 90s in the late 1980s but remained clear of mind, voiced deep misgivings in 1989 about the likely effects of the victory he had foreseen. "I see nothing hopeful in any of it," he wrote in the summer, shortly after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When the Berlin Wall came down, he did not change his mind. Like Hayek, he had always had the gravest doubts about democracy. He thought that the impulsiveness of democratic public opinion, especially in foreign affairs, could easily scupper its long-term advantages over more rigid, ideological systems. Democracies were endlessly liable to do something stupid. The victory of democracy (which was being credited to a president, Ronald Reagan, whom Kennan had long considered the embodiment of democratic stupidity) simply provided the opportunity for more and bigger mistakes.
Hayek, Kennan, and Fukuyama are very different thinkers. What they have in common is a shared sense that democracies learn the wrong lessons from their long-term ascendancy. Instead of becoming tougher and smarter, they become more careless and cavalier. What the three intellectuals also share is that their complex fears and anxieties about democracy tended to get drowned out in favor of a simpler and more reassuring message: Democracy wins in the end.
In 1989, Kennan wished that the Americans who were lauding him would listen to his warnings about the dangers of victory. He thought that caution should be the watchword in times of dramatic change. No one should get carried away. No one should believe he or she had been proved right. Kennan wasn't a prophet unappreciated in his own land. Like Fukuyama, he was being appreciated as a prophet when he wanted to be recognized as something else.
Again, it is Tocqueville who provides the template for this kind of misunderstanding and also the best explanation for why it keeps happening. His own misgivings about democracy have often been missed by readers keen to hear only the good news about democracy's dynamism. Tocqueville had two fears for democracy. First, he believed that the restless impatience of democracy would lead it to become intolerant and impulsive. Second, he thought that the evidence of democracy's long-term advantages would lead democratic societies to become complacent about the risks they run. Underlying faith in democracy, the precondition for its functioning at all, generates unwarranted optimism.
The present predicament of American democracy is a reflection of those twin fears. On the one hand, there is plenty of impatience and intolerance, revealed in the furious claims both political parties make to speak for the silent majority. At the same time, there is a glib, unspoken assurance that democracy in America is secure and nothing can replace it. There is little push for any alternative system, certainly not for its main rival, Chinese state capitalism, whose champions in the United States are vanishingly thin on the ground. The underlying faith in the durability of the system is what allows America's angriest politicians to bluster.
As a result, it is hard to find any space between unwarranted optimism and unwarranted pessimism. For every doom-monger like Niall Ferguson, there is someone else saying that the prophets of doom will be wrong this time, as they have been every time in the past. Glimmers of economic revival are treated as evidence of a coming resurgence. Charles R. Morris, author of the best-selling crisis book The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, has recently written a sequel: Comeback: America's New Economic Boom. In the eyes of the optimists, the temporary travails of American democracy will soon be put right with the help of fracking and Silicon Valley innovation. From this point of view, American democracy is menaced only by an unprecedented outbreak of political stupidity.
Democracies lurch from complacency to fury and back again. What democracies do not provide is room for intellectuals who want to make a case for the enduring and open-ended relationship between the two. The appetite is for tales of triumph or tales of impending calamity. The truth about democracy is that it is neither bound to succeed nor bound to fail. Rather, its successes open the door to failures of overconfidence and complacency.
David Runciman is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow at Trinity Hall. He is the author, most recently, of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2013).