How Democracy Ends

By David Runciman

On June 4th 1989, thousands of people descended on Tiananmen Square to protest authoritarian political rule and campaign for democracy. What had started as a small student protest to mourn the death of Communist Party politician Hu Yaobang, had suddenly morphed into a massive demonstration. Thousands of ordinary people lined the streets demanding change.

For their efforts, the protestors would experience the full, terrifying force of state violence. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army moved into the square and started to systematically kill the protestors. Contemporary estimates placed the death toll at over 10,000 people. The protestors attended at huge personal risk in hoping to bring in existence a more democratic and open system of government.

We are a long way from 1989, but the events surrounding Tiananmen Square highlight the power of the democratic story. People are willing to lay down their lives to defend or to establish it.

Democracy in the abstract is a powerful idea, democracy in practice is not. Everyone is not recognised equally, protected interests maintain huge influence and everyone is in constant conflict.  But if we consider how human beings should manage the relations between the state and its citizens, democracy is the best option that we have; as Winston Churchill famously said:

Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In 2018, democracy and democratic system are in real trouble. Voters are feeling hugely disillusioned with the political system: politicians break their promises, powerful interests aren’t held to account and tribalism has swept the electorate. In the last few years, there have been numerous books highlighting the crisis of democracy, with some writers rejecting the whole basis of democratic politics entirely. These books are largely a response to the election of President Donald Trump and the supposed threat he poses to democratic models of governance.

David Runciman predicts that American democracy will survive Donald Trump, but it might not survive a catastrophe or the impacts of artificial intelligence and technological innovation.

As we stand, democracy seems unable to solve the biggest existential problems that society faces. On the challenges posed by terrorism, migration, environmental disaster and technological innovation, democratic societies have little idea what to do. Could this be a sign that the democratic system of government is slowly dying?

In How Democracy Ends, Runciman argues that whilst democracies may not be dying, they are going through a period of mid-life crisis. In their younger days, democracies were able to revitalise themselves by extending the right to vote. Extending rights to women and minorities enhanced democratic participation and representation in the 20th century. Now there is no one left to extend the vote to, so new thinking is required to revitalise democracy.

Runciman’s analysis is largely persuasive and he is adept at identifying the issues with democratic systems. He does not identify much in terms of solutions, although there are plenty more alternative systems that he could have explored in this book. But he hopes that the democratic story is not over, and is just starting a new chapter.

No Coup!

Runciman identifies three broad ways in which democratic systems can end: by coup, natural disaster or through digital technology. Let’s begin with coups.

Part of the power of democratic systems is that once a country has developed democratic roots, societies never return back to military or monarchical rule. Where we do see coups today, such as the removal of Robert Mugabe in 2017, it happens in political systems where there is no long-standing democratic tradition. When people get used to democracy it is difficult to use force to overthrow the system. Runciman cites an interesting statistic that no democracy has ever returned to authoritarian rule once GDP has risen to $8,000 per person. It is difficult to say why this is exactly. One reason could be that when people have a material stake in the system, they are better incentivised to see that system prosper. In France, a notorious coup attempt was executed against General de Gaulle in 1961, but it was a resounding failure. De Gaulle took to the airwaves to denounce the coup, and the generals behind it encountered severe resistance. The French people would not accept the military forcing out a democratically elected President.

Now the kind of coups that democratic societies experience come in more subtle forms. Greece has not been taken over by an opposing military force but has resigned huge political and economic power to outsiders. Now the major decisions are not taken by the Greek President or the Greek people. They are taken by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Few in Greece today seriously believe that they are living under a dictatorship. If that were to happen, everyone would know the difference. But is Greece still a functioning democracy? It has the appearance of a democracy, but appearances can be deceptive. The present Greek government has to bend to the will of the troika, the economy remains on life support, and the people bear the consequences.”

 The fear of Greece falling out of the Eurozone has compelled politicians to enact a programme of mass austerity. In Greece, youth unemployment is at 50% and the national debt is 180% of GDP, but it is the Greek people who bear the cost. The end of democracy does not come through tanks and guns, it comes through bureaucrats armed with spreadsheets and growth forecasts. Capitalist economies can be taken hostage.

Runciman then turns to an analysis of populism and its relevance to our present democratic crisis. We have seen populist candidates emerge across the world, but they are entirely compatible with the democratic tradition. Trump in many ways is like the great populist William Jennings Bryan who ran for President three times under the democratic party ticket. Bryan appealed to ordinary people by railing against the elites and opposing American imperialism.

Populism itself is nothing new. It rises in democratic societies under particular conditions: economic distress, technological change, growing inequality and the absence of war.”

Populism is an expression of what is not working in democratic systems. A common populist complaint is that power has been stolen by the elites and needs to be returned to the people. As Donald Trump said in his inaugural address: “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” Runciman is perceptive in his analysis of the conditions that give rise to populism. Where we have seen considerable economic displacement and growing inequality, populist figures are likely to emerge. We saw this in the election of Trump, but also notably in Austria, the UK, India, Italy, and France. The absence of war is also a crucial condition for populism. War has a unique ability to bind people together, rich and poor, old or young. This was certainly the case after the first and second world wars when a sense of collective unity helped to keep the populist demons at bay. But in a time of peace and rapid social change, populist tensions are more likely to emerge.

Runciman is correct in his analysis of the conditions that give rise to populism. But populism is also brought about as a reaction against migration. The rise of populist movements and the appeal of Trump has in many ways been a reaction against demographic changes. People in western democracies complain that their countries are changing beyond recognition. They feel that their shared culture and history is being subsumed by multicultural values. Populism cannot be divorced from questions of nationalism. But the issues of nationalism as a force to shape shared identities gets little attention here. 


Runciman goes on to analyse the kinds of disasters that would end democracy. These existential risks pose a particular threat as democratic systems have no real response against them. The only hope is to try to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of nuclear disasters, climate change, AI and bioengineering. The philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that democracies are bad at responding to future risks because citizens will demand proof first. 

Democracy cannot control existential risk. The most it can hope for is to be spared by it. This is how democracy gets treated by the existential risk-management industry: with kid gloves, like some precious object of historic value that might yet turn out to have an incidental use

We no longer live with the fear of nuclear destruction, even though the weapons still exist and they could still destroy the natural world. The campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had over two million members in the 1980’s, today it is a rump of a few thousand members. The irony, as Runciman points out, is that the periods in which democratic states were at the greatest risk of nuclear annihilation, they enjoyed their greatest prosperity. It seems contradictory that these weapons are so fatal to democracy, but we managed to live with them successfully.  

Runciman argues democracies are paralysed by a kind of mindlessness around systemic risk. We know that the dangers are very real, and yet we go along through the normal course of events until we have sleepwalked into disaster. The events surrounding the first world war reflect this pattern. No one wanted to go to war, but a series of mindless decisions plunged the world into one of the most brutal conflicts in human history.

We exhibit the same kind of response to climate change, which is largely one of apathy. The environmental movement has shown how big a danger it is, and yet we do nothing about it. Runciman notes the inherent problems with such an approach. He refers to the writings of Hannah Ardent on the trial of the Nazi leader Adolf Eichman. It was here that Ardent coined the phrase the” banality of evil.” She observed that Eichman was simply a bureaucrat, he did things of unspeakable cruelty as an ordinary man following orders. It is this blind passivity that can lead to such senseless destruction.

Human beings still make the key decisions, but they do so without creative insight. They go through the motions. Or they lash out on impulse. What Arendt learned from studying Eichmann was that going through the motions opens the door to our most destructive impulses. We stop thinking for ourselves.”

This element of non-thinking permeates the approach we have taken to existential risks. We recognise the threats posed by nuclear war or climate change are real, but we are powerless to act collectively. No matter what the friends of the earth say since climate change is an incremental process, we are less good at treating it with the urgency it requires.

Technological take over

Runciman then analyses the different ways in which technology has undermined rather than enhanced democracy. In the fervour of the Arab Spring in 2011, there was great hope that new forms of communication would open up autocratic states to more transparency. Unfortunately, this proved to be overly optimistic. States like Egypt, Libya and Syria are in huge periods of unrest and turmoil. Young activists have been able to use digital networks and social media to put pressure on autocratic rulers, but the same undemocratic forms of government still persist.

The wider impact of new technologies on politics has been profound. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have completely changed political communication. Social media provides citizens with a direct line to their political representatives. Whether this is a good thing is a difficult question, but it represents the intersection of rapid advancements in technology with an archaic political process.

Runciman references Hobbs’s conception of the leviathan as an analogy for the power of the state. In our modern world, Facebook is essentially a kind of mini-leviathan.

The real threat comes if Facebook is able to mimic the Leviathan.

Can Zuckerberg tell the president of the United States what to do? No. Can Facebook’s two billion users outvote the two hundred million-strong electorate of the United States? No. But could Facebook undermine the way that American democracy operates? Yes.”

We now have technology companies that have enormous power and the potential to disrupt the democratic process. Zuckerberg is not more powerful than Donald Trump, but if he really wanted to Zuckerberg could give Trump a real kicking. The irony though is that Zuckerberg does not have mendacious intentions. It’s difficult to know what kind of impact Russian interference had on the outcome of the 2016 election, but it demonstrated the huge power of the Facebook network. If Zuckerberg, or someone with the reach of his network, consciously tried to manipulate an election, they could do a serious amount of damage. Whilst Trump’s power is restricted by an elaborate series of political, legislative and judicial checks, Facebook is able to do practically whatever it wants and operates with very little transparency or democratic accountability. This may be changing following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but the power of social networks to undermine the democratic process is clear. 

Social media also permits new forms of democratic self-expression. If someone says or does something silly or ill-advised, they are liable to experience the full wrath of the online community. Sometimes it may be warranted. Although sometimes a misjudged comment is liable to lose someone their job, family and friends.

In one of the most notorious examples of an online witch hunt, Justine Sacco, a corporate PR executive, lost her job, her friends and her social standing after she published a joke on Twitter about race and AIDS before boarding a flight to South Africa. (‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white.)

When she landed, Ms Sacco was greeted with a torrent of virtual abuse which had real-world consequences. This, Runciman argues, is the product of letting pure democracy rule. Majority rule means that the crowd can quickly turn on those who displease them. Sacco clearly made an appalling joke, but should this be the bar at which you have let yourself wreck your life. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this kind of mob mentality in his 1835 study of America referring to it as a “tyranny of the majority.”

Democratic Alternatives

Having dispensed with the threats to democracy, Runciman goes on to examine alternative political systems. Unfortunately, he does not offer much in the way of solutions. He recognises that our current situation represents a problem that has no easy answers. With any system, there are sets of trade-offs.

A system of pragmatic authoritarianism exchanges personal dignity for collective dignity; short-term reward for long-term benefits. This is an approach to politics that side-lines the individual for the collective good. There is a lot about this style of politics that is unappealing such as the limits it places on democratic free expression and individual agency. But it can restore collective dignity and leverage the power of the state to achieve long-term economic benefits. This kind of system also appeals to peoples quest for a shared national identity. It was a feeling that Trump was able to masterfully exploit in the 2016 election.

Trump’s electoral pitch in 2016 came straight out of the pragmatic authoritarian playbook. He promised to deliver collective dignity – at least for the majority group of white Americans. Make America great again!

The rise of identity politics may limit the appeal of authoritarian models. People now are becoming less identified by their nationality and more identified with social characteristics like their gender, race or education. Education level is a now a better indicator than social class to predict how someone is going to vote. Pragmatic authoritarianism may be appealing to some people, but it appears no better than democracy for solving really big problems. In many ways could prove to be worse.

Another model that Runciman examines is epistocracy. Epistocracy proposes that people should only be able to participate in the democratic process if they are sufficiently knowledgeable to do so. We know that people participate in the democratic process without access to full, complete and unbiased information, so should we let them vote? If democracy is bad at making decisions in its long-term interests why not just stop people without sufficient knowledge from voting? Although Runciman does not say so explicitly, there is an important point to be made about the need for justice to underpin democratic politics. For a system to truly be democratic the vote needs to be open to everyone. Even though some votes count more than others, we respect the idea that a vote should not depend on status or a kind of intelligence test. Intelligence is largely a result of a genetic lottery, and so people should not be excluded from politics through no fault of their own.  

But such a system is one that serious philosophers have advanced. John Stuart Mill argued for a system in which people received votes proportionate to their status in society. Unskilled labourers get one vote, skilled labourers get two, and so on. What Mill really wanted were people with a broad range of experience to be able to influence the political system. But again such a notion seems to side-step principles of justice and fairness. Who is to say that an unskilled labourer has less breadth of experience than a politician. To frame thing in terms of absolutes is not helpful. Whilst people put a premium on education level, it is not always a reliable indicator of knowledge. As Christopher Achen says his in book Democracy for Realists:

‘The historical record leaves little doubt that the educated, including the highly educated, have gone wrong in their moral and political thinking as often as everyone else.”

Finally, we turn to the concept of technological futurism. We may soon get a point where machines are better at making political decisions than humans are. In such an event would it not be more prudent to hand over control to the machines? The current political period is unique in that human beings are beginning to lose control over their own agency as political actors. If democratic societies are unable to make difficult but necessary decisions, perhaps technology will provide a form of higher intelligence to make the tough choices for us?

This world-view is expressed by a new wave of tech billionaires who see democracy as an illusion. They conceive of a state in which technology will free them from the oppression of the state and new forms of self-governance will emerge. This idea of technology leading to the dismantling of the state seems appealing to those on the edges of both the right and the left. Paul Mason in his book Post-Capitalism talks about the revolutionary power of information technology to shift power away from corporations and the state and towards individuals. This reading seems very optimistic. Perhaps advances in technology could lead to a situation in which the centre of power shifts away from big institutions to individuals. But equally, the powers for us to influence digital networks and artificial intelligence could soon be out of our hands.  We are living on the edge of a time in which the lines between the individual and technology will blur. Once we reach the singularity, we will no longer be driving the decision-making process, it will be driving us.

How Democracy Ends is a hugely engaging, if not slightly dispiriting book. Runciman’s analysis of the current failures of democratic societies is perceptive and insightful. His arguments surrounding how failure will look different to what has come before are particularly persuasive. Just because Trump is in the White House does not mean that we are heading back to the 1930’s. Runciman offers no solutions to our current democratic malaise. He readily acknowledges how difficult the predicament that we find ourselves in is. The three alternatives that he poses are all true alternatives, but whether they would be any better than our current system remains doubtful. Technological futurism is unique in outlining a future world where everything can be possible. It could equally present futures of wondrous emancipation or unimaginable forms of technology subjection. Democracy is not dead yet, but we will have to work to ensure that what comes next is better for the world and not worse.

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