Despite being one of the United States’s founding statesmen and its second president after independence from Britain, John Adams was quite skeptical of democracy. “Democracy never lasts long,” Adams reflected in an 1814 letter. “It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
The United States that existed when Adams wrote the letter was not very worthy of being described as a democracy in any case. Millions of African-Americans held in slavery were denied the most basic human rights, while women were denied any meaningful participation in civic life. Not until the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage in the 20th century could the United States start to be considered a full-fledged democracy, despite the country’s founding under the false flag of democracy in 1776. American democracy, in any meaningful sense of the term, is then less than a century old.
Recent events suggest that, even now, American democracy may be starting to enter a decrepit late-middle age. While many people assume that our current political turbulence is an aberration, long-term trends suggest that undemocratic illiberalism may one day become the norm in the United States and elsewhere. Democracy is eroding and may no longer be a plausible means of governance. Technological change, decaying institutions, and populist demagoguery may well make genuine democracy effectively impossible, validating Adams’s prediction that a democratic system could never really endure.
A new book by Cambridge University professor David Runciman, provocatively titled “How Democracy Ends,” charts a number of trends in the United States and Europe that he believes foretell the approaching end of democracy as we know it. Among the threats we face are global problems like climate change and inequality, which our dysfunctional democratic systems have proven incapable of responding to.
Yet the end of democracy does not mean a return to any recognizable, pre-democratic past. Unlike many other gloomy predictions of democracy giving way to something like 1930s European fascism, Runciman argues that the unique nature of our modern societies means that, if the end comes, it will happen in a much more subtle way. Rather than a military coup d’état or the unilateral annulment of a vote by a strongman, in the West, democracy is more likely to simply fracture and fizzle out over time. As our political institutions become less and less able to deliver meaningful results and the speed of technological change continues to warp and remake society, democracy could effectively die while continuing to appear alive — “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style — for years to come.
“If you look 20, 30 or 40 years ahead, we are almost certainly going to continue having elections. The elections will still have lots of sound and fury and talk of change, but the technology and structures of modern life will mean that the change that can be accomplished by voting will be very limited,” Runciman writes. “The system that exists may not be either democratic or authoritarian, but rather a kind of ‘half-life’ democracy that could continue existing for a long time.” [Continue reading…]