Much ink has been spilt since 2016 on the question of whether democracy is coming to an end. The rise of right-wing strongmen to positions of elected office in Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, the United States and the United Kingdom, amongst others, men who routinely express a greater desire for self-preservation than for the preservation of democracy itself or its institutions, has heightened fears that the era of democratic politics is fast drawing to a close. One example of such ink is David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, an overall fairly engaging book digging deep into the state of democracy in the 21st Century.
Those looking for a clear blow-by-blow explanation for how democracy will end will come away disappointed. Runciman does not offer an ethical or political judgement on the value of democracy, nor does he appropriate the demise of previous political systems so as to teach some lessons about what may happen. Instead, Runciman offers fresh insight into what many of our current political developments could really mean, cutting away the polemic which so often plights discourse. The election of Trump, for example, does not in itself indicate the demise of democracy, he argues. Quite the opposite – had Hillary Clinton refused to concede the election, or had Obama refused to leave office (or both), then democracy really would have ended in America. There’s still time, though, given that Trump is unlikely to concede and unlikely to immediately leave office in the somewhat-likely event that he loses the 2020 presidential election.
Looking back through history, Runciman characterises the most common endpoint to democracy as the coup, typically exercised by the military, but the social and technological conditions of 21st Century life make it difficult to conceive of a coup being successful. For starters, states and their populaces used to be much smaller than they are today. It’s much easier to seize control of a state manned by a few hundred people, ruling across a few thousand than it is to seize control of a state manned by several thousand and ruling across hundreds of millions (to take America as an example). With the advent of the internet and social media, information is spread and disseminated at lightspeed – everybody would know there was a coup within moments of it taking place, and a fightback could be organised with imminent effect across a much wider group of participants than those actually doing the coup. We know this because it’s already happened – the attempted military coup of Turkey in 2016 was quashed within about 12 hours, largely thanks to social media. So, unless done by deception and stealth, that’s not going to be how democracy ends. “Executive aggrandisement – when elected strongmen chip away at democracy while paying lip service to it – looks like being the biggest threat to democracy in the 21st Century,” Runciman argues. Look around you and you’ll see that the seeds of this are already being sown. Trump gleefully sharing a video on Twitter predicting his continuation in office for years to come is just one such example.
If the 21st Century (in its early years, at least) is to be the story of executive aggrandisement then the end of democracy will come gradually rather than all at once. Perhaps we will, in the future, look to the election of these strongmen as the key causal factor, but what Runciman is keen to emphasise is that just because democracy has been the West’s system of governance for the past few hundred years doesn’t make it inherently good, and certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a better alternative out there (Runciman offers up some, but they’re largely unconvincing). China is a good example of this. There are numerable things to be concerned about when it comes to China’s politics, but it has proven that it’s possible to merge dictatorship and free-market capitalism without immediate collapse, disproving the long-held belief that democracy and capitalism were interdependent. If it works in China, why not here, or in America, or everywhere? Why bother with the trivialities of being subject to power contests if a state can keep its power forever and still generate wealth?
It’s also possible that democracy will end due to external forces, Runciman argues. The climate crisis is ongoing and we don’t truly know how bad it’s going to get, or when, or whether it’s going to necessitate a greater centralisation of political power so as to combat it, as is true in wartime democracies. If the price of saving the world is the end of democracy, that’s a price Runciman thinks many will be willing to pay (and he’s probably right). What about technology? One of the most interesting points made in the book is how, even if dictators install themselves for life and end democracy, that word “life” remains crucial, because they will one day die. Trump will die. Boris will die. Bolsonaro will die. Every political figure you presently despise will one day die, just like you and me. But what if they don’t? It’s difficult to know the extent to which this plays on the mind of tech entrepreneurs, but we know for a fact that there are some in Silicon Valley actively exploring the possibility of bringing death to death. A world in which nobody dies – or, crucially, where only some can live forever – cannot be a democratic one.
How Democracy Ends is a deeply engaging book which I’d recommend to anybody with even a passing interest in modern politics and what its future could hold. David Runciman, with his deference to short sentences, writes in academic but accessible prose with a talent for presenting what seems obvious in a fresh and interesting light, offering up new interpretations that other commentators and academics miss. Ponderous yet somehow concise, we don’t quite know how democracy will end, but Runciman’s book outlines how critically engaging with the political and social developments already taking place can offer up some signs which could prove decisive in the end days to come.