Demsoc book club: How Democracy Ends

We’re starting a semi-regular slot where Demsockers (our staff) review books they’ve recently read. To start, Andrew Brightwell talks about How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman.

If you’re looking for a light spot of summer/autumn reading, this book by the Director of POLIS at Cambridge University might not make it to the top of your list, starting as it does with the observation that democracy will end, and its demise might be rather closer than we might hope.

But if this doesn’t leave you spitting out your Pina Colada and rifling through your hotel’s battered paperbacks for an alternative, you’ll find a fascinating, accessible introduction to many of the most interesting existential questions our democracies face.

Unlike a slew of editorials, books and other media calling time on democracy, Runciman steers clear of hyperbole and melodrama. The notion that tanks will roll on to the manicured lawns of the White House, trundle up Downing Street, or burst the gates of the Elysees Palace, is quickly dismissed. Instead, he suggests, the risks to democracy – at least for wealthy nations, where coups are vanishingly unlikely – is that democracy is deemed unfit for the challenges ahead.

As the author points out, democracy is more likely threatened by our technological revolution and, and the potential for existential catastrophe. Indeed, while the threat of coup d’etat may have withered, the good times our liberal democracies have enjoyed are unlikely to be repeated either.

A historian of political thought, he is skilled at introducing us to the development of our democracies, their weaknesses and to a range of academic responses and critiques. These include an insightful exploration of a contemporary proposal for ‘epistocracy’, rule by the experts, which was made into a long read for The Guardian.

Gideon Rachman, reviewing the book for the Financial Times, suggests that it’s probably best to see Runciman’s work as a thought experiment. In fact, it’s part of a growing body of work that the writer is amassing, which explores what might – perhaps should – happen to our democracies. And some of Runciman’s most interesting suggestions are to be found outside this work, in particular in a series of lectures he has delivered since its publication – which are available as part of his Talking Politics Podcast. These include the startling, but not entirely serious suggestion that we should lower the voting age to six – and Runciman’s use of the Copernican Principle to underline how fleeting our current form of representative democracy might prove to be.

It makes How Democracy Ends a fascinating read, and a great introduction to the problems contemporary representative democracy face, but it is only the start of a longer journey – a journey we’re all on.