Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Book review: How Democracy Ends, David Runciman (2018)

From the beginning of this book I was annoyed. My annoyance started as I watched a Cambridge academic archly seeing on TV the swearing-in of Donald Trump in Washington DC in February 2017. The majority of the first part of the book, which looks at the ways that democracy has failed in the past, was engaging and well-written enough and contained concrete examples of dysfunctional polities. This part of the book also elencates the ways that coups can be carried out, including ones that are carried out by stealth (which is what is happening in America today).

But the next part (I stopped at about 30 percent of the way through the book) is too well-written by half. Runciman has a slick, effortless, rhetorically-sophisticated style that might be tremendous for the purposes of talking with other well-educated specialists, but he doesn’t know how to nail down ideas for the trade market. Things slide around and fail to get purchase, with clauses and sentences glibly slipping in new ideas all over the place. It’s like someone herding cats. I have two arts degrees and I found this book baffling. I felt like I had shoved my arm into a barrel stuffed full of eels. It was infuriating and pointless.

The other thing that is infuriating is that he’s written the wrong book. He should have written a history of democracy in Australia to show how to do it properly. But like everyone else in the world he seems to think that everything that comes out of the US is newer and shinier and better. It’s not.

In fact (and Runciman hints at this at one point in the book) the US is not actually a democracy at all, but rather an oligarchy. And the political right there is always working to further limit access to the democratic process to exclude people living in the lower-socioeconomic strata of society. Look at recent efforts by Donald Trump to make having photo ID mandatory when going to vote. It’s all about trying to make sure the elites are the only ones who can cast a vote. So to fix this problem here are a few things the US should do in order to become a true democracy:
  • Make voting at all elections mandatory
  • Establish a statutory body to run elections and to set electoral boundaries
  • Stop preventing ex-convicts from voting
In addition to these things, there are a number of other things that the government there should do that would mean making America fairer for everyone who lives in the country, not just the few at the top of the pile:
  • Establish single-payer healthcare (while cutting the private health insurance companies out of the loop)
  • Triple the minimum wage
  • Properly fund public secondary school education
  • Give power back to labour unions so that they can organise in workplaces
  • Fund a public broadcaster with a national reach
  • (Oh, and gun control)
The comfortable Runciman is however more interested in sophisticated argument and its elegant expression than in seeing what is plain before his face. In Australia, we actually started the global run of right-wing populist xenophobes with the election to Parliament in 1996 on the Liberal Party ticket of Pauline Hanson. In the most recent Longman by-election (held last month), One Nation, her party, got about 15 percent of the popular vote. So we know how to marginalise crackpots before they become dangerous demagogues bent on usurping control of the polis. We don’t need someone from a remote ivory tower telling us how to do democracy.

But this is always the way. The US gets the attention, the funding and the trade. People in other countries are left scrambling to recover their balance each time some new “improvement” is imported from America to cause havoc in their political processes by out-of-touch neoliberals touting each grab for power from the ordinary people that they try to legislate under the guise of “progress”. America is broken. It’s as simple as that. It’s exactly the wrong place to start from when you are writing a book about the future of democracy.

1 comment:

Matt Moore said...

Runciman is a stylist. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing (esp. in an academic) but obviously that's a matter of taste. I do sometimes wonder: "Did you write that because you think it's true or because you liked the shape of the phrase?" And I agree that in this book sometimes his stylistic ticks overwhelm the flow of the narrative (such as it is). In terms of format, he is at his best in the format of the long essay (3k - 10k words) - such as appear in the LRB or that make up most of his other books.

He is also quite clear that he is not a political scientist - he's a historian of political thought (from a similar tradition to Quentin Skinner) so he's at his most comfortable arguing with other writers about ideas (altho he is also skilled at written portraits of politicians). I don’t mind that as an approach.

The book is not really a manual for fixing democracy but rather an exploration of different responses to our current political predicament. I found it less satisfying than his other books. And that's partly because I don't think there are any satisfying solutions to our predicament (just a plethora of unsatisfying half-fixes) but also because I agree that he doesn't land on much that is concrete but prefers to worry away at ideas. I rate it much higher than yourself but would note that these two podcasts may convey basically the same ideas in a more cogent manner.