The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present - Revised Edition

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present - Revised Edition

by David Runciman


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Why democracies believe they can survive any crisis—and why that belief is so dangerous

Why do democracies keep lurching from success to failure? The current financial crisis is just the latest example of how things continue to go wrong, just when it looked like they were going right. In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008.

A global history with a special focus on the United States, The Confidence Trap examines how democracy survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis, and from Watergate to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories, from the defeat of German autocracy in 1918 to the defeat of communism in 1989. Throughout, the book pays close attention to the politicians and thinkers who grappled with these crises: from Woodrow Wilson, Nehru, and Adenauer to Fukuyama and Obama.

In The Confidence Trap, David Runciman shows that democracies are good at recovering from emergencies but bad at avoiding them. The lesson democracies tend to learn from their mistakes is that they can survive them—and that no crisis is as bad as it seems. Breeding complacency rather than wisdom, crises lead to the dangerous belief that democracies can muddle through anything—a confidence trap that may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape, if it hasn't already. The most serious challenges confronting democracy today are debt, the war on terror, the rise of China, and climate change. If democracy is to survive them, it must figure out a way to break the confidence trap.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691178134
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2017
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Runciman is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity Hall. His books include The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy (both Princeton). He writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt



False Dawn

The Crisis

ON JUNE 30, 1918, THE EXACT HALFWAY POINT OF THE year, the French writer Édouard Estaunié declared that the struggle for civilization was over. The Great War, which had been dragging on for nearly four years, was lost. The Germans had achieved a decisive breakthrough and advanced to within fifty miles of Paris, near enough to set up an incessant bombardment of the city. Soon Paris would fall, since there was nothing to stop the German army from pressing home its advantage against demoralized opponents. The Germans would find themselves entering a ghost town; already many Parisians had fled and the city increasingly felt like a morgue. Plus ça change. Victory went to the people who wanted it more and were prepared to do whatever it takes to get there. In the struggle between barbarism and civilization throughout history, Estaunié lamented, barbarism always triumphed in the end.

But Estaunié was wrong on two counts. First, this was not a fight between civilization and barbarism. Instead, it had turned into something different, a fight between democracy and autocracy. Civilizations are not always democracies; democracies are not always civilized. Second, the fight was not lost. In fact, it was just about to be won. Within a few weeks the German advance would be decisively checked, and within a few months the German army would be in full-blown retreat. Well before the end of the year the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empires had both collapsed, their leadership in disarray, their political systems overthrown. France, Great Britain, and the United States were about to win a crushing victory. Democracy was on the verge of the greatest triumph in its history.

What Estaunié's cosmic gloom captures is just how unexpected this triumph was. During the first half of 1918 there existed a widespread feeling that in the final struggle between autocracy and democracy, autocracy was proving itself the stronger. The democracies were not gripped by panic or outright defeatism, but by a sense of debilitating drift. There was a long-standing suspicion that they lacked the resolve for total war. Paris was not being depopulated in a mad rush; instead, people were melting away, taking trips to the country from which they did not return. The British and French armies were not in outright retreat; they were simply being pushed back step-by-step. The politicians appeared powerless to turn the tide. The best they could do was cling on, hoping for better days. How could they match the remorseless sense of purpose of Germany's military rulers?

As it turned out, they did not need to. The democracies won the war by being better able to withstand defeat and disappointment than their enemies. They survived their setbacks in 1918 and turned them to their advantage in ways the German regime could not. Not knowing how to force the issue went along with not knowing when they were beaten. The sense of crisis is permanent in democracies and for that reason rarely definitive. When crisis engulfed the German state, it proved terminal.

The feeling some experienced during the first half of 1918 that the failings of democracy were being definitively exposed was therefore an illusion: the democracies were stumbling toward victory rather than defeat. However, this meant that the idea victory represented a moment of truth for democracy was also an illusion. The democracies had not seized hold of their destiny at a time of crisis. They had simply held on. The truth about successful democracies is that they never arrive at their moment of truth.

Still the temptation to see victory for democracy in 1918 as a historical watershed proved almost irresistible, especially for the people whose intervention in the war had done most to turn it into a struggle for democracy: the Americans. If some French intellectuals had a tendency to view the prospect of defeat in cosmic terms, some American intellectuals had a tendency to see victory in the same light. This was an opportunity to remake the world: to make it safe for democracy. The best known of these intellectuals was the American president, Woodrow Wilson. Yet Wilson had few illusions about democracy. Before becoming a politician he had been a full-time political scientist. He was a student of Tocqueville and a colleague of Bryce. He knew how hard it was to capture the truth about democracy at any given moment, and he understood the pitfalls of trying. But this knowledge was not enough to save him from disaster. Recognizing the pitfalls did not prevent Wilson from falling into the trap.

The year 1918 remains one of the defining crises in the history of modern democracy. The experiences of that year show how quickly extreme democratic pessimism can turn into unjustified optimism. Both are the product of the quest for the underlying truth about democracy. Democracies tend to overreach themselves when they outlast or defeat autocratic rivals, because they assume the truth about democracy has finally been revealed. It hasn't. What eventually gets revealed instead is the inherent difficulty democracies have in seizing the moment. The triumph of democracy in 1918 was not illusory, but it was inaccessible. Democracies turn defeats into victories. However, because they misapprehend what they have done, they also turn victories into defeats.

Autocracy versus Democracy

For the First World War to result in a triumph for democracy it first had to turn into a crisis for democracy. In order to turn into a crisis for democracy it first had to turn into a fight for democracy. That is what had happened in 1917.

The original conflict that began in August 1914 did not make sense as a fight for democracy because the democracies were not all lined up on one side and the autocracies on the other. The world's preeminent democracy, the United States, had remained neutral under the leadership of Wilson, who had no pressing wish to get dragged into Europe's atavistic blood feuds. The vast majority of the American people felt the same. One reason why most Americans had little appetite to join in was that Britain and France were fighting in alliance with the most autocratic state in Europe, czarist Russia. Russia's presence on the "democratic" side made a mockery of the idea that this was a war of political principle. Indeed, fighting the czar helped to persuade many German democrats that theirs was the true struggle for European freedom against Asiatic barbarism. From both an American and a German perspective, the British and French were not democrats. They were just imperialist hypocrites.

The Russian revolution of February 1917 changed all that. The abdication of the czar and his replacement by a provisional constitutional government committed to holding free elections was heralded as a victory for democracy. It made sense of the wider conflict in a way that even its critics could understand. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who had been against the war from the beginning, wrote to his friend, the Russian writer Maxim Gorki: "I regard the revolution as such a gain to humanity that it not only at last justifies the Franco-Anglo-Russian alliance (which in the days of tsardom was a disgrace to Western democracy) but it justifies the whole war." The Russian revolution helped to precipitate America's entry into the contest. The immediate trigger was the German High Command's decision in January 1917 to resume sinking American ships. But the moral impetus came from Russia. As Woodrow Wilson told Congress in April when he made the announcement that America was taking up arms on the side of democracy: "Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening in Russia?" This was the speech in which Wilson declared that America's aim should be to create a world made safe for democracy.

In a war that had lasted far longer than anyone expected, the Russian revolution looked like the denouement. The journalist Walter Lippmann, who was about to leave the staff of the New Republic to start work at the White House, wrote after he heard Wilson's speech: "When Russia became a Republic, and the American Republic became an enemy, the German Empire was isolated before mankind as the last refuge of autocracy." Russia's provisional government was now pledged to continue the war in the name of democratic freedom. The revolution had thrown up a fresh democratic hero in its youthful, idealistic leader, Alexander Kerensky. In the West, there was a brief cult of Kerensky, who became the symbol of a new democratic optimism. Almost everyone found something to admire in him. The always-hyperbolic Bernard Shaw, somewhat ominously, said that what he liked about "the boy braggart" Kerensky was that he reminded him of himself.

In reality, Kerensky was a thirty-six-year-old lawyer with little political experience who had been propelled to power on the back of his oratorical gifts. He had a mesmerizing speaking style, which drove crowds into paroxysms of delight, especially the women, who would wail and swoon along with their idol. But he lacked political judgment. In the summer of 1917 Kerensky decided to gamble everything on a military offensive against the encroaching Germans, putting his faith in the power of democratic ideals to motivate his forces. He called on Russia's soldiers to prove "there is strength, not weakness, in freedom." Unfortunately, they did just the opposite. The campaign turned into a disaster, as the Germans routed the ill-equipped and poorly led Russian troops. It turned out that the Russians were not drunk on freedom; many of them were simply drunk.

After this fiasco, the democratic optimism of the spring began to shrivel, in the West as well as the East. Kerensky's new democracy seemed to confirm the old prejudices about democratic ill discipline and recklessness. He represented the triumph of democratic hope over experience. His failure opened the door for Lenin's much more hardheaded Bolsheviks to take over. Lenin announced that he would give the Russian people what they really wanted, an end to the war, and he commenced peace negotiations with the Germans. A Russian exit from the war in the East greatly increased the chances that the democracies would lose in the West, since the Central powers would no longer be fighting on two fronts. Russia's democratic revolution was turning out to be a disaster for democracy.

While the Kerensky cult faded in the West, another cult was on the rise: the cult of Erich Ludendorff, the implacable quartermaster of the German war effort. Ludendorff came to symbolize what the democracies were lacking. As the war dragged on through 1917 the performance of the Western democracies appeared increasingly shambolic. There were mutinies in the Allied armies, endless squabbling among the politicians, and repeated changes of personnel at the top (France went through three prime ministers in a matter of months). For all his fine words, Wilson was proving very slow at getting American troops and equipment to Europe. In November, the ill-disciplined Italian army broke and ran in the face of an Austro-Hungarian advance at Caporetto, seeming to show once again that there was weakness not strength in freedom. (The resolve of the Austro-Hungarian forces, which had been notoriously flaky, was stiffened by the presence of German troops.) Meanwhile, the German state, by now effectively a military dictatorship under the control of Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, began to gather its forces for the final assault. Democracy was on the retreat. It was autocracy that was on the march.

Earlier in the year, the Atlantic Monthly had sent the journalist H. L. Mencken to Germany to profile Ludendorff. Mencken was a self-styled political iconoclast, on the model of his hero Nietzsche, whose ideas he had first introduced to the American reading public a decade earlier. Mencken revered Nietzsche as the great "sham-smasher" of democratic pieties. When the war began in 1914 Mencken came out on the side of the Germans, whose political system he admired for rewarding men on the basis of strength of will, not passing popularity. Ludendorff's rise to supremacy confirmed this. As Mencken happily noted: "The 1914 edition of Wer Ist's, the German Who's Who, does not mention Ludendorff at all. At the time it was published he was a simple colonel on the German staff." Now he was "the real boss of the country — perhaps the best man Germany has produced since Bismarck." But still very little was known about him. "He is credited with no apothegms, no themes, no remarks whatever. He remains a man of mystery." The contrast Mencken wanted to draw was with Wilson, a politician he despised. Wilson, the democratic man of many slogans, was all crowd-pleasing talk, all sententious philosophizing, but no action.

Mencken was touching on an anxiety that had been building throughout the war. How could the democracies, which chose their leaders on the basis of their ability to pander to the public, match the meritocratic German system, which rewarded success on the battlefield, not in the charade of electoral politics? War had brought Ludendorff to the top. The United States was still being led by a man who had won reelection in 1916 by promising to keep America out of the war. Wilson had shown himself to be adaptable to the point of absurdity. In a straight confrontation between the systems of government these two men represented, Mencken felt sure which was going to come out on top.

Anxiety about the inadequacies of democracy reached its peak in early 1918. Were the democracies ruthless enough to compete with their rivals in a fight to the death? Did they have sufficient will to power? Or would the democratic propensity to patch up and make do and muddle along destroy them in the end? In the East the men of action, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Lenin and Trotsky, were deciding their own fate and perhaps the fate of the entire world. In the West, the democratic politicians were waiting to see what would turn up. The autocrats were in charge. What else did the democrats have to offer?

Two Speeches

To start with, they had what democratic politicians always have in limitless supply: more words.

As 1917 turned into 1918, the world's attention was focused on the Belorussian city of Brest-Litovsk, where German and Russian representatives were negotiating the terms of Russia's exit from the war. The leaders of the Western democracies had two overriding fears about what might emerge from these discussions. The first was that the Bolsheviks would give too much away to the Germans, thereby shifting the balance of power in the military conflict. The second was that the Bolsheviks would demoralize the democratic war effort by pouring scorn on it. The Bolsheviks had contempt for Western democracy, which they saw as an obvious sham. Trotsky used the occasion of the peace negotiations to publish details of the secret treaties between the czarist regime and its Western allies in an attempt to show that all the belligerents were as bad as each other: scheming, devious and acquisitive. "In exposing to the entire world the work of the ruling classes," Trotsky had announced back in November, "as expressed in the secret diplomatic documents, we address the workers with the call which forms the unshakeable foundation of our foreign policy: 'Proletarians of all countries, unite!'"

In early January 1918, Pravda spelled out where it stood on Wilson's professed aim of making the world safe for democracy. It was a sick joke. The American government had entered the war not for the sake of "right and justice" but to promote "the cynical interests of the New York stock market."

Mr. Wilson serves American war industry just as Kaiser Wilhelm serves the iron and steel industry of Germany. One gives his speeches in the style of a Quaker Republican — the other wraps himself in the mists of Prussian-Protestant-Absolutist phraseology. But at bottom it is all the same.

Democratic leaders in the West were not worried that their populations might be reading Pravda. But they did fear the destabilizing effects of the basic Bolshevik message: that the war was a conspiracy against democracy. In both London and Washington it was decided that the moment had come to restate the reasons why the democracies were fighting this miserable war. They had to counter the idea that beneath the surface the belligerents were all as bad as each other.

The British made their case first. On January 5 the prime minister, David Lloyd George, gave a speech to a gathering of trade unionists in which he set out the Allied war aims. He emphatically rejected the Bolshevik claim that there was no moral difference between the two sides in this war. The Central powers were seeking territorial gain and material rewards for violence. The democracies were simply trying to defend themselves. Lloyd George declared that "the democracy of this country means to stand to the last by the democracies of France and Italy and all our other Allies." So this was a war of democratic solidarity. The aim was to undo the wrongs done to them all, which required the restoration of territorial or material losses caused by the war. It had to be made clear that no democracy could be the victim of military aggression.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction: Tocqueville: Democracy and Crisis 1

Chapter 1 1918: False Dawn 35

Chapter 2 1933: Fear Itself 76

Chapter 3 1947: Trying Again 111

Chapter 4 1962: On the Brink 145

Chapter 5 1974: Crisis of Confidence 184

Chapter 6 1989: The End of History 225

Chapter 7 2008: Back to the Future 263

Epilogue The Confidence Trap 293

Afterword to the Paperback Edition 327

Acknowledgments 337

Notes 339

Bibliography 357

Index 381

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"In this book, David Runciman emerges as the most original guide we have to democracy's global prospects in the twenty-first century."—Melissa Lane, Princeton University

"The Confidence Trap's engrossing analytical history illuminates democracy's deepening achievements and recurring crises during the charged past century. By incisively interpreting these moments of unsettled apprehension and by tracking patterns of coping and surviving, this rich, important book helps us understand, and perhaps even navigate, present anxieties about the capacity of democracies to grapple with the big issues of economics, geopolitics, and the environment."—Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

"Rivetingly written for a wide audience, this is David Runciman's best and most original book to date—bold, clear, astonishingly well informed, and consistently excellent. His ecumenical curiosity is as engaging as it is disarming, pulling you into a history that is effortless to read and leaves you thinking about its insights long after you put it down."—Ian Shapiro, author of The Real World of Democratic Theory

"Imaginative and entirely original. I've not read anything remotely like it."—Alan Ryan, author of On Politics

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