Thursday, November 21, 2013

Complaints About the Inadequacy of Democratic Politics are Not New

Are you disgusted by the way American democracy seems to be failing?  If so, you are not alone.

People have been disenchanted with the workings of American Democracy for much of the twentieth century.

At least this is the argument of David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, drawn from his book The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present:

...there is nothing new about this outburst of disgust with the workings of democracy. Nor is it distinctively American. Europeans (with the possible exception of Germans) are just as disenchanted with their elected politicians. Lamenting the failings of democracy is a permanent feature of democratic life, one that persists through governmental crises and successes alike.
There is no decade from the past century when it is not possible to find an extended debate among commentators and intellectuals in the democratic West about the inadequacies of democratic politics. This is not true of only those decades when Western democracy was clearly on the ropes, like the 1930s, when it was menaced by fascism, or the 1970s, when it was threatened by inflation and oil shock. It's also true of the prosperous and relatively stable decades as well. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann led the charge, arguing that democratic publics were far too ill-informed and inattentive to manage their own affairs. In the 1950s, academics worried about the banality and exhaustion of democratic life. Daniel Bell took a positive stance with his claims about the end of ideology, but for the most part democracy was treated as a cumbersome, careless system of government, in permanent danger of being outwitted by the Soviets.