The trouble with democracy

author of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present in The Guardian: “Government shutdowns, petty policy squabbles, voter disaffection – democracy doesn’t seem to work very well. But what’s the alternative? And can we rely on muddling through?…Those of us who live in the western democracies might sometimes be tempted to agree. Dictator envy is a habitual feature of democratic politics. We don’t actually want to live under a dictatorship – we still have a horror of what that would entail – but we do envy dictators their ability to act decisively in a crisis….
The irony of dictator envy is that it goes against the historical evidence. Over the last 100 years, democracies have shown that they are better than dictatorships at dealing with the most serious crises that any political system has to face. Democracies win wars. They survive economic disasters. They adapt to meet environmental challenges. Precisely because they are able to act decisively without having to square public opinion first, dictators are the ones who end up making the catastrophic mistakes. When dictators get things wrong, they can take the whole state over the cliff with them. When democratic leaders get things wrong, we kick them out before they can do terminal damage.
Yet that is little consolation in the middle of a crisis. The reason we keep succumbing to dictator envy is that it requires steady nerves to take the long view when things are going wrong. The qualities that give democracies the advantage in the long run – their restlessness and impatience with failure – are the same qualities that make it hard for them to take the long view. They look with envy on political systems that can seize the moment. Democracies are very bad at seizing the moment. Their survival technique is muddling through. The curse of democracy is that we are condemned to want the thing we can’t have.
The person who first noticed this deeply conflicted character of democratic life was a French aristocrat. When he travelled to the US to study its prisons in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville shared the common 19th-century prejudice against democracy. He thought it was a chaotic and stupid system of government. By the time he finished his journey a year later, he had changed his mind. He decided that American democracy was a lot better than it looks. On the surface, everything appeared a mess: bickering politicians, vituperative and ill-informed newspapers (“The job of the journalist in America”, Tocqueville wrote, “is to attack coarsely, without preparation and without art, to set aside principles in order to grab men”), distracted citizens. No one was able to exert a grip. There was far too much noise, not enough signal. But over time this surfeit of noise produced an adaptable politics that never sat still for long enough to get stuck. The raucousness of American politics was a sign of its essential health. Americans kept stumbling into holes and then back out of them. More mistakes are made in a democracy, Tocqueville wrote, but more mistakes are corrected as well. More fires get started by Americans. More fires get put out by them too….
It has always been like this. The history of democracy throughout the 20th century is a story of repeated crises during which politicians and publics have been torn between the twin impulses to overreact and to underreact to the dangers, without ever finding the balance between them. Dictator envy is never far from the surface….The pattern of democratic life is to drift into impending disaster and then to stumble out of it. Undemocratic practices creep up on us unawares, until the routine practices of democracy – a free press, a few unbiddable politicians – expose them. When that happens, democracies do not get a grip; they simply make the minimum of necessary adjustments until they drift into the next disaster. What is hard for any democracy is to exert the constant, vigilant pressure needed to rein in the forces that produce the crises. It is so much easier to wait for the crisis to reveal itself before trying to do something about it. The new information technology, far from solving this problem, has made it worse. We are more distracted than ever. The surfeit of information flowing around the world makes it practically impossible for anyone to keep secrets for long. But it also makes it practically impossible to secure broad democratic agreement for wide-ranging reform of public life. There is far too much noise, not enough signal. So we keep our fingers crossed in the hope we will muddle through.”