The good news: Even Donald Trump hasn’t been able to kill democracy. The bad news: Yet.
“Democracy,” writes Runciman (Politics/Cambridge Univ.; Politics: Ideas in Profile, 2015, etc.) provocatively, “is civil war without the fighting.” In the broadest terms, it fails when that symbolic war turns into a real one. By that account, we’re doing OK, inasmuch as even the pitched battles among right- and left-wingers in the United States have not yet descended into bloodshed. The author would seem to share with Steven Pinker the view that the Enlightenment is still alive, if not exactly well, and that overall, we’re in better shape than our forerunners in terms of political violence and the ability to accommodate widely divergent views. It could have been otherwise; Runciman opens with a threefold view of possibilities for what might have come of the 2016 election, including the sitting president’s refusing to yield office, “the route to civil war,” and what actually happened, namely Trump’s gaining that office even as “the American political establishment decides to grin and bear it.” Reminding readers that authoritarianism comes with executive edicts and not the slow-working legal process, Runciman counsels Americans to breathe a little easier on Trump’s judiciary appointments—though, of course, those appointments may be in effect for a generation and more. In the face of Trumpian attacks on laws and customs, he suggests that the institutions of democracy are proving resilient in being effective bulwarks against tyranny. Which is not to say that things can’t be improved, especially as an aging population shows less stamina for the hard work of engaging in representative democracy, a system that Runciman holds is “intended to work against our cognitive biases” in thwarting immediate gratification in favor of long-term benefits.
Democracy isn’t dead, not yet, but it could use some physical therapy while it steps gingerly into the grave. For all its optimism, an urgent, necessary book of cold comforts.