LIKE A GOOD many people, perhaps including yourself, I spent a portion of last summer dutifully doing my best to read Thomas Piketty's Capital, getting not quite two hundred pages in. Well, I tried. Perhaps I will finish next summer, too late to be altogether au courant, but it's been a good while (decades!) since I was even close to being au courant, so I may as well just relax and not have a panic attack about it. I hope we are of one mind on that.
I did, however, manage to read this--comparatively a romp at 326 pages, lucid, witty, illuminating, and buzz-worthy, not that I noticed it getting a lot of buzz. I think of it in conjunction with Capital because much of the power of Piketty's book (I read enough to discern) was his ability to combine his extraordinary sophistication as an economist with an historian's patient perseverance in working through an enormous archive, and Runciman's book is persuasive because of his ability to combine his expertise as a political scientist with a nuanced grasp of twentieth century history.
Runciman's book springs from Tocqueville's insights (have I mentioned that I love Democracy in America? I do, reader, I do) into what democracies tend not to do well. One, they are bad at solving deep, long-term problems, because democratic politicians have difficulty seeing beyond the horizon of the next election; two, they are fumbling and inefficient in the early stages of any crisis, because they do not have the total, speedy, centralized authority of dictators.
He then looks at seven twentieth century crises (involving a suddenly emerging threat, or a need to think about the long-term, or both) and tries to understand how democracy, despite its disadvantages, was able to pull its chestnuts out of the fire in time: the aftermath of World War, the Great Depression, the aftermath of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Soviet bloc and later the USSR itself, and the 2008 slump.
Runciman has sufficiently mastered the history of these crises to narrate them briskly and analyze them cogently. In each instance, democracy avoided catastrophe. What he wants to emphasize, though, is that it was by no means inevitable that democracy would succeed. Democracies can fail, and he also shows how narrowly it sometimes escaped failing in these crises.
Hence his title. A record of success can persuade us that democracy will always find a solution, whatever the problem, and that politicians will get what they have to get done when they absolutely have to. This can make us complacent, and complacency could be our undoing:
So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. Both sides [i.e., Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Tories] play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which they become lethal.
Runciman points to four contemporary challenges--militarization, financial regulation, climate change, and the new economic power of China--of the sort that democracy tends to fudge, defer, or ignore. Democracy may very well be able to meet these challenges, but we should not assume that the solutions will come about of themselves, out of a complacent conviction that democracy is just that good. That is the "confidence trap." Democracies, even ours, can fail, if we forget there is no one at the tiller but ourselves.