Is This Really How it Ends?

Jan-Werner Müller in The Nation:

Of all the books that this new democracy-defense industry has produced, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die makes the most coherent case, by way of comparison, for why Trump’s presidency may well endanger one of the world’s oldest republics. As scholars who have worked primarily on Latin America and Europe, Levitsky and Ziblatt demonstrate how a global perspective should shake many people out of the complacency created by their cherished beliefs about American exceptionalism. Like all students of comparative politics, they are mindful that 1990s Venezuela, post-1945 West Germany, and interwar Belgium—all of which make an appearance in their book—differ profoundly. And yet they think one lesson can be generalized: that democracies depend not just on institutions like courts committed to protecting the rule of law; they also require informal norms that all political players need to observe to keep the democratic game going. Like many liberals, they think that serious norm violators such as Trump should be kept out of the game entirely, and so they call for reinforcing the power of elite gatekeepers as a powerful line of defense.

In his similarly titled How Democracy Ends, David Runciman, the most original theorist of democracy writing in the United Kingdom today, provides a convincing alternative to the products that come off the assembly line of the democracy-defense industry. The Cambridge professor is deeply wary of historical analogies. He worries that, by becoming fixated on fascism and other instances of democratic self-destruction, we will miss today’s real challenges—the catastrophe of climate change, above all, but also how social-media networks are undermining democracies in subtle yet potentially fatal ways. Democracy, Runciman says, is about keeping the future open and enabling people to change their minds after encountering different views and new information; the Internet giants, by contrast, profit from always giving us more of the same. Combine the power of algorithms with a state committed to all-out surveillance of its citizens and you get contemporary China, an authoritarian model that Runciman regards as a serious rival to democracies today.

More here.