Yesterday evening I heard David Runciman give the Princeton Annual Lecture about his forthcoming (2012) book The Confidence Trap. The title of the lecture was 'Can Democracy Cope?' – there's a rather fuzzy snapshot below of Her Majesty looking on as he spoke. It was certainly enough to make me eager to read the book when it's out.
The question David posed was whether the long run (over decades) success of democracies is coming to an end given the setbacks the leading democracies have faced in the past 10 years – unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the intractable public finance problems, possible environmental catastrophe and the plausibility of autocractic Chinese capitalism as a rival model. He noted it was hard to be sure there is a crisis of democracy, given that people think there's one a decade but in fact there have only been 2 or 3 – the 1890s, 1930s and possibly 1970s.
He then outlined three traditions of thought about the nature of democracy.
One, dating back to Plato and including Burke and Nietszche, is that democracy is a sham – the elites tell the people what they want to hear and the people elect those who say the pleasing things, and real power is exercised back stage. (The 'confidence trick')
A second, dating from Paine and Condorcet at the end of the 18th century, is that democracy needs to pass a critical threshold to survive but once past that it can defeat its enemies and becomes self-sustainingly robust. (The confidence threshold)
The third – and this is his preferred model, which he attributes to Volume 2 of Tocqueville's Democracy in America – is that democracies, once successful, become complacent. They succeed so well that people don't have enough to worry about and behave in ways that undermine success. This is the confidence trap.
This reminded me of the famous El Farol oscillating equilibrium in economics, and seems highly plausible. I think I'd add a time trend on to the cycles David identifies, that of the increasing complexity of modern democracies and economies, and the consequent tension between technocracy and populism. (This was noted by Daniel Bell in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.)
It was highly stimulating. For a flavour of it, David was on Start the Week. If you missed both, you'll have to wait for the book next year.