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Q&A: Donald Trump and Other Crises of Democracy

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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David Runciman is professor of politics at Cambridge University. His books include "The Confidence Trap," a brief, lively history of crises faced by democratic nations, and how those nations handled the challenges. The rise of Donald Trump, and continuing turmoil throughout Europe, have raised anew questions about democracy's vulnerabilities and resilience. Over the course of several days in late April and early May, I interviewed Runciman, via e-mail, about the current perils. 

Wilkinson: The democratic "confidence trap" that you describe is more an attitude than a philosophy, a prevailing sense of, "Oh well, this particular problem looks quite serious but we always muddle through, so why panic?"

We only have two real political parties in the U.S., and one is about to nominate Donald Trump for president. Is this a confidence trap -- a case of Republican voters assuming that democracy can bear more strain than it can reasonably be expected to carry?

Runciman: I think the rise of Trump reflects the two sides of contemporary democracy (and not just in the U.S. -- there's a lot of this going on in Europe, too): Anger and complacency.

You might think these are opposite states of mind but they can go together: Angry people are often complacent about how much of their anger the system can stand. Many Trump supporters are furious with the political system and how it has let them down. But at the same time they believe that American democracy just needs a good kick from an outsider to be reinvigorated. If the system is as dysfunctional as they believe, then it would be more reasonable to suppose that a good kick would bring it crashing down.

Yet some of the complacency -- or at least, some confidence in the future -- is not entirely misplaced. For people horrified by Trump we have to remember it's still pretty likely that electoral democracy will stymie him. It's very hard (but not impossible) to see how he wins a general election. And even if he does win, American constitutional democracy still has enough institutional safeguards to keep some of his worst impulses in check. Democracy has proved remarkably resilient over the past hundred years. It has survived worse than Trump.

Wilkinson: Yet Trump's success has not occurred in a vacuum. We have seen congressional Republicans threaten to destroy the credibility of government debt, for example, in pursuit of their goals. In your analysis of democracies in crisis, have you identified the characteristics of a tipping point? When does democratic dysfunction enter the danger zone?

Runciman: I'd say two things about what history tells us. First, it usually takes an external shock to tip democracies over the edge. Even the most ideological Republicans in Congress are not actually going to repudiate American debt and bankrupt the country. But were some major economic or geopolitical shock to happen while they're threatening it -- maybe some breakdown in relations with China -- then confidence in the system could drain away before they have time to pull it back.

Second, there aren't direct historical parallels to the present. Previous crises have happened under very different circumstances. For all its current problems, America is by any historical standards still a very prosperous and secure society. Also peaceful -- the violence in this presidential campaign is nothing compared with the violence of the past.

In 1933 only 5 percent of Americans were over age 65; now the share of the population over 65 is pushing 20 percent. There is no evidence that elderly societies tear themselves apart -- just look at Japan at the moment, or Italy or Greece. They just stumble on. So tipping into violence, or chaos, or regime change -- the hallmarks of democratic failure -- seems unlikely. The danger zone for us -- even more so in Europe -- is that we can keep going like this for a long time.

Trump's brinkmanship has so far been confined to the electoral system -- seeing how far he can push it with voters and pundits. The alarm bells might be ringing even louder if we were facing the realistic prospect of a Ted Cruz presidency. Cruz has a track record of brinkmanship with government. Once shutting down the government becomes a pawn in the game, then democracy has got real problems.

Wilkinson: One of the most striking chapters of your book concerns the 1970s, an era generally remembered for its political strife, corruption and malaise, when the U.S. and other democracies appeared to lose their economic and ideological bearings. Yet you recast the decade as a success in which democracies finally ground down the Soviet bloc. We thought we were flailing; we were actually winning. We no longer live in that bipolar world, but I'm wondering if you discern any latent success beneath the current democratic turmoil in Europe and the U.S.

Runciman: The 1970s showed that in democracies the bad stuff is on the surface, meaning it often looks worse than it really is. In the mid-70s, a lot of serious commentators thought we were on the brink of collapse. We weren’t: We could see how bad it was, and we adjusted. In the Soviet bloc, the symptoms were buried, so the causes went unaddressed.

Apparently the Chinese leadership is enjoying watching Trump’s rise, because it seems to confirm all their suspicions of democracy: It’s hucksterism plus stupidity. But in 1974 the Soviet leadership thought Watergate showed that democracy was finished. How could it survive such a scandal?

Scandals are one of the ways in which democracies let off steam. Autocracies don’t have that outlet, which is why they sometimes blow up. It’s definitely possible that while the world is laughing/cowering at Trump, the real damage is being done in places where similar popular anger, driven by some of the same economic causes (rising inequality, globalized high finance), is being suppressed.

The 70s also remind us that democracy's saviors often come from the most surprising places. If you’d told someone in 1974 that Margaret Thatcher was going to be a world-historical figure, they would have laughed in your face. She was little more than a failed education minister.

Just because we can’t see who’s going to get us out of this mess doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They just don’t look like saviors yet. They look like regular (maybe even failed) politicians.

Wilkinson: Let me ask about a less corporeal and colorful threat than Trump. Your book contains a wonderful quote from a Victorian lawyer, Henry Maine. Or it would be wonderful if it didn't seem so alarmingly prescient.

The gradual establishment of the masses in power is the blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion, which requires tension of mind to understand it and self-denial to submit to it.

Climate change requires such legislation founded on scientific opinion. Deadly without being imminent, it's a problem perfectly designed to thwart democratic response isn't it?

Runciman: Climate change could be the crisis that democracies don't know how to deal with, precisely because of all the other crises that they have got through.

In this presidential election, in which no Republican candidate has been willing to say that tackling climate change should be a priority, it's the politicians who are most out of line with the experts. That's because of the role of money in U.S. politics and its power to shape debate.

Public opinion now broadly recognizes that climate change poses a serious threat (even significant parts of Republican public opinion), but not with the strength of feeling to stand up to anyone with a stake in saying something different. So the problem is not so much that the masses lack the discipline to understand science. It's that they lack the discipline to stand up to vested interests twisting science to their own purposes.

That's the irony of the Maine quote -- he was wrong, in that legislation has actually become more scientific over time. But he may now be about to be proved right. This for me is the essence of the confidence trap. Because warnings about dangers to democracy have been overblown in the past, it's tempting to discount the present warnings as overblown. It makes us cocky, even as our democracies start to show signs of serious strain.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net