Democracy and its discontents

Much of the fevered discussion on the future and failings of democracy is based on misconceptions, particularly the fact that some see democratic discontent and growing authoritarianism as a re-run of the 1930s – something possible but extremely unlikely.

There are also serious misconceptions about the history of democracies. Most accounts of the system start with Athens despite it being a society characterised by slavery, civil wars and coups bearing little resemblance to a modern democracy. Indeed, Greece has been largely thus for much of the past couple of millennia with the last coup only 60 years ago.

Moreover, modern democracies are exactly that – very modern. The US boasts it has been a democracy since the Revolution but in terms of all citizens being able to vote the system has been largely democratic for only about 60 years and that period has also been marked by systematic attempts at gerrymandering and voter suppression.

The UK has been a modern democracy in franchise terms for less than a century and it still incorporates a role for unelected aristocrats. Australia did a bit better in terms of the franchise for women but excluded Indigenous people; practised gerrymanders in states such as Queensland and South Australia; used property qualifications to exclude voters from Legislative Council elections in some states until after WWII; and experienced its own coup in 1975 at the hands of the CIA with vice regal and regal assistance.

In this context David Runciman, Cambridge Professor of Politics, has written a brilliant book about current democracies – trends, problems, sustainability – called How Democracy Ends.

Ironically, Runciman is himself an example of one aspect of the British class system. Descended from a British Cabinet Minister; expected inheritor of a title; family ownership of a Scottish island; son of another eminent politics professor; and, great nephew of a magnificent popular historian, Sir Steven Runciman, who was an outrageous snob besotted with royalty.

Runciman begins his discussion with modern Greece, the 1967 coup and the soft coup imposed on Greece by the EU in 2008 before going back to ancient Athens to recount analogous stories.

In terms of coups he discusses Luttwak’s 1968 Coup D’Etat: A practical handbook. “A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder,” Luttwak wrote.

Taking the definitions a bit further the American political scientist, Nancy Bermeo, has identified six varieties of coups of which coup d’etat is only one. Significantly the final two are: ‘Executive aggrandisement’ when those already in power chip away at democratic institutions without ever over-turning them; and, ‘Strategic election manipulation’, when elections fall short of being free and fair but also fall short of being outright stolen. Readers may draw their own conclusions about the aptness of these as descriptions of contemporary situations in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

Runciman also discusses soft coups in the context of electors ‘watching on’ as decisions are made through ‘audience democracy’ and ‘spectator democracy’ which he characterises as ‘zombie democracy’ sometimes facilitated by plebiscites.

Discussing conspiracy theories Runciman describes how they oscillate between who possesses power and how the impacts of disenfranchisement and network effects amplify them. Trump, Erdogan, Modi, Kaczynski all govern in ways in which new (and sometimes contradictory) conspiracy theories are constantly propounded.

Hollowed out democracies with disenfranchised and disillusioned populations are also poor at handling existential risks – nuclear risks, climate change, failure of interconnected technological systems – as democracies have traditionally focussed on bread and butter issues. Runciman is optimistic that democracies can handle such problems – indeed the record shows they have done it better than authoritarian regimes (eg Russia) and can do so in the future.

Runciman’s discussion of technology is remarkably balanced and he provides some interesting insights into prescient figures starting with E.M. Forster’s dystopic short story The Machine Stops – putting Forster’s comment about ‘only connect’ in its original context of not ‘interconnecting’. He also jokes that Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet – it was Gandhi when he wrote “Men will not need to use their hands and feet.. They will press a button and they will have their clothing by their side. They will press another and they will have their newspaper. Third and a motor car will be waiting for them. They will have a variety of delicately dished up food”.

In the context of the Internet Runciman devotes a fascinating chapter to the respective power of Hobbes’ Leviathan (the State), corporations, other power centres and networked society. He contrasts the role of political parties with that of social networks which “have made representative democracy seem fake. The fake versions that exist online seem more real”

He also suggests that the role of political parties is being destroyed without knowing how to replace them.

He looks at Russian disinformation campaigns; examples of successful direct democracy activities in places such as Reykjavik and Stockholm; the non-ideological pragmatism of 21st century authoritarians; and some alternatives to our current democratic systems suggesting that Churchill’s aphorism about democracy being the least worst option – is only “for now”.

Runciman writes: “Contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffectual. Much of the time it is living on past glories. This sorry state of affairs reflects what we have become. But current democracy is not who we are. It is just another system of government, which we built and we can replace. So why don’t we replace it something better?”

Aye – there’s the rub – as Runciman concludes by looking at the ways we could change, improve, enhance the system…..or just stagnate in our current situation.

It’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump reading this book (he is a beneficiary and part creator of the problems Runciman discusses) and from his experiences with teleprompters might find the text a bit long and challenging. As for contemporary Australian politicians there may be no more Barry Jones in Parliament but there are many there who could read it, may well have already done so, and are very probably able to act on what it discusses. Sadly few of them are in positions of power within their parties.