How democracy ends: a review and reevaluation

Last month I attended a talk by David Runciman, the author of a recent book called How Democracy Ends. I was prepared for outrage-stirring and pearl-clutching, but was pleasantly surprised by the quality of his arguments, which I’ve summarised below, along with my own thoughts on these issues. Note, however, that I haven’t read the book itself, and so can’t be confident that I’ve portrayed his ideas faithfully.

Which lessons from history?

Many people have compared recent populist movements with the stirrings of fascism a century ago. And indeed it’s true that a lot of similar rhetoric being thrown around. But Runciman argues that this is one of the least interesting comparisons to be made between these two times. Some things that would be much more surprising to a denizen of the early 20th century:
  • Significant advances in technology
  • Massive transformations in societal demographics
  • Very few changes in our institutions
The last of those is particularly surprising in light of the first two. Parliamentary democracies in the Anglophone world have been governed by the same institutions - and in some cases, even the same parties - for centuries. Continental European democracies were more disrupted by World War 2, but have been very stable since then, despite the world changing in many ways overall. That’s true even for institutions that are probably harmful - consider the persistence of the electoral college in the US, the House of Lords in the UK, the monarchy in Australia (despite their ardent republicanism movement), first-past-the-post voting systems in many countries, and so on. (In fact, Runciman speculates that Americans voted for Trump partly because of how much confidence they had in the durability of their institutions - a confidence which so far seems to have been well-founded.)

So history gives us pretty good evidence for the robustness of democratic institutions to the normal flow of time - but not to exceptional circumstances. In fact, an inability to make necessary changes may well render them more fragile in the face of sharp opposition. If and when pressure mounts, are they going to snap like the democratic institutions of 1930s Europe did? Runciman argues that they won’t, because of the nature of the demographic changes the West has seen. There are three particularly important axes of variation:
  • Wealth: the average person is many times wealthier than they were a century ago, and the middle class is much larger.
  • Education: we’ve gone from only a few percent of people getting tertiary education (and many of the remainder not finishing high school) to nearly 50% of young people being in university in many western countries.
  • Age: in the last century, the median age has risen by over ten years in most western countries.
These three factors are some of the most powerful predictors of behaviour that we have, and so we should take them into account when judging the likelihood of democratic failure. For instance, wealthier and more educated people are much less likely to support populist or extremist groups. But Runciman focuses the most on age, which I think is the correct approach. Wealth is relative - even if people are actually much richer, they can feel poor and angry after a recession (as they did in the 1930s, despite still being many times wealthier than almost all their ancestors). Education may just be correlated with other factors, rather than the actual cause of lasting differences in mindset. But there are pretty clear biological and social reasons to think that the behaviour and priorities of older people are robustly and significantly different from those of younger people. You need only look at the age distribution of violent crime, for example, to see how strong this effect is (although it may have lessened somewhat over recent years, since marriage rates are declining and single men cause more trouble).

In short: the failures of democracy in the 30’s were based on large populations of young men who could be mobilised in anger by militaristic leaders - see for instance the brownshirts in Germany and blackshirts in Italy. But that’s not what the failure of democracy in our time would look like, because that group of people is much smaller now. For better or worse, older populations are less disruptive and more complacent. To see where that might lead, consider Japan: an ageing population which can’t drag itself out of economic torpor, resistant to immigration, dominated for decades by one political party, betting the country's future on using robots to replace the missing workforce.

Changes ahead

During a Q&A after the talk, I pointed out that Japan is very different to western countries in its particularly strong culture of social conformity and stability. Age trends notwithstanding, I have much more difficulty imaging the same quiet tolerance of slow decline occurring in the US or UK. So, given that government institutions are very difficult to change, where will people direct their frustration if lacklustre growth continues in the coming decades?

In response, Runciman raised two possibilities. Firstly, that people will “go around their governments”, finding new domains in which politics is less relevant. We could call this the “Wild West” possibility. Of course, there’s no longer an uncolonised West to explore - but there is the internet, which isn’t democratically run and probably never will be. We already see fewer young men working full-time, because the alternative of spending most of their time gaming has become more appealing. As virtual worlds become even more immersive, it seems plausible that people will begin to care much less about political issues.

One problem with the idea of “going around governments”, though, is that governments are just much bigger now than they used to be. And as technology companies profit from the growing role of the internet, there’ll be pressure for governments to intervene even more to fight inequality. So a second option is a more Chinese approach, with increasingly autocratic Western governments exerting heavy pressure on (and perhaps eventually control over) tech companies.

A more optimistic possibility is for the internet to make democracy more accountable. Runciman invites us to consider Plato’s original argument against direct democracy (in which people vote on individual issues) - that it would lead to rule by the poor, the ignorant, and the young, all of whom necessarily outnumber the wealthy, wise and old. This argument turned out not to apply for representative democracy, since elected representatives tend to be wealthy, educated and old despite their constituents being the opposite. But now it’s inapplicable for a different reason - that although our representatives haven’t changed much, the rest of us are starting to look much more like them. So maybe it’ll become feasible to implement a more direct democracy, facilitated by the internet and modern communication technology. (This still seems like a bad idea to me, though.)

Base rates and complacency

The last section was a little speculative, so let’s take a step back and think about how to make predictions about these sorts of events in general. Runciman’s analysis above provides good reasons not to draw a specific parallel between the rise of fascism last century and recent political events. But it would take extraordinary evidence to exempt us from extrapolating broader historical trends, in particular the fact that states always collapse eventually, and that the base rate for coups and other forms of internal strife is fairly high. Are the extraordinary changes we’ve seen since the industrial revolution sufficient to justify belief in our exceptionalism?

It’s true that since World War 2, almost no wealthy democracies have descended into autocracy or chaos (Turkey and Ireland being two edge cases). It’s also true that, despite widespread political disillusionment, norms against violence have held to a remarkably large degree. But drawing judgements from the historical period “since World War 2” is a classic case of the Texan Sharpshooter’s Fallacy (and possibly also anthropic bias?). In fact, this recent lull should make us skeptical about our ability to evaluate the question objectively, because people are in general very bad at anticipating extreme events that haven't occurred in living memory. I think this is true despite these possibilities being discussed in the media. For example, while there’s a lot of talk about Trump being a potential autocrat, few Americans are responding by stockpiling food or investing in foreign currencies or emigrating. This suggests that hostility towards Trump is driven primarily by partisan politics, rather than genuine concern about democratic collapse. An additional data point in favour of this hypothesis is how easily the Republican political establishment has fallen in line.

Another key question which isn’t often discussed is the nature of modern military culture. Historically, this has been a major factor affecting governmental stability. But, apart from vague intuitions about modern militaries being fairly placid, I find myself remarkably ignorant on this subject, and suspect others are as well. What facts do you know about your country's military, about the character of its commanders or the distribution of power within it, that make you confident that it won't launch a coup if, for example, one of its generals is narrowly defeated in a disputed presidential election (as in Gore vs Bush)? Note that military demographics haven’t changed nearly as much as those of our societies overall. They’re still primarily composed of young working-class men without degrees - a group that’s unusually angry about today’s politics. So while I am pretty convinced by Runciman’s arguments, this is one way in which they may not apply. Also consider that warfare is much less hands-on than it used to be, and firepower much more centrally concentrated, both of which make coups easier.

And what about extreme events?

So far I've looked at societal collapse from a political point of view. But many historical transitions were precipitated by natural disasters or diseases. See, for instance, the Mayan collapse, or the Little Ice Age, or the Black Death. Today, we're much safer from natural disasters, both because of our technology and because of the scale of our societies - few people live in countries in which the majority of a population can be struck by a single natural disaster. Similarly, we're also much safer from natural diseases. But we're much more vulnerable to severe man-made disasters, which I think are very likely to occur over the next century. Since this post is focused on political collapse as a distinct phenomenon to technological disaster, I won’t discuss extreme risks from technology here. However, it's worthwhile to look at the ways in which smaller technological harms might exacerbate other trends. AI-caused unemployment and the more general trend towards bimodal outcomes in western countries are likely to cause social unrest. Meanwhile terrorism is going to become much easier - consider being able to 3D-print assassin drones running facial recognition software, for instance. And due to antibiotic overuse, it's likely that our safety from disease will decline over the coming years (even without the additional danger of bioterrorism using engineered diseases). Finally, I think we're much softer than we used to be - it won't take nearly as much danger to disrupt a country. Runciman is probably correct that we’re less susceptible to a collapse into authoritarianism than we were in the past - but the same trends driving that change are also pushing us towards new reasons to worry.

In addition to the talk by Runciman, this post was inspired by discussions with my friends Todor and Julio, and benefited from their feedback.


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