Crisis and catastrophe in sobering stocktake of democracy

Oliver Riddell reviews How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman, published by Profile Books. 

It was probably a shaman crouched over a campfire in a cave mouth who first thought about the nature of society and pondered how it might end. David Runciman is the linear descendant of such a shaman.

Prof Runciman, of Cambridge University, sets out how democracy began, has developed and what it has become. He says the crisis in modern democracy is real, but that it is also a bit of a joke, and that is what makes it so hard to predict how it might end.

He does not have a high opinion of what democracy has become. He says "contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual; much of the time it is living on past glories". He quotes more savage descriptions of what democracy has become, although "cannabalistic" may seem to go too far.

The joke part he ties to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Voters there, where the system is skewed, have chosen an anti-democrat as their president. In this new environment, he says, all bets are off when it comes to the future of democracy. Democracy has a long history of providing political stability and he is not inclined to write it off yet.

What academic commentators on politics, as distinct from observers and recorders of it, do not fully understand is the distrust and even loathing many voters feel towards their elected representatives. Yet this is perhaps the surest guarantee of the survival of democracy. At least under a democracy it remains theoretically feasible to vote out an unpopular ruler. In theory, yes; but so disenchanted are so many voters that they feel disenfranchised and unmotivated to vote.

Worldwide there is a declining turnout in elections. If people feel their wishes will be disregarded and have no confidence in their representatives, why should they bother voting? Voter manipulation has become an art form, and even the least-aware voters realise that. All of this facilitates those interested in overturning and replacing democracy.

I especially enjoyed the discussion on catastrophe theory as it is affecting democracy. The three main studies Runciman considers are on environmental degradation, nuclear devastation and ethnic cleansing (mainly the Holocaust). These all occurred because society did not recognise what was being imposed incrementally in its name, and so became complicit in the outcome.

Catastrophe theory is useful in raising consciousness. No-one really wants the world to end. The risk in thinking in such absolutes is that ordinary people will doubt that the stakes are as high as all that, so they turn off, and continue their disengagement.

The issues in this book do not make for restful bedtime reading. It will come as no surprise to any Kiwi reader that there is no mention in it of one of the world's oldest functioning democracies - New Zealand.

Oliver Riddell is a retired journalist in Wellington.

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