Not Democracy ≠ Fascism

How Democracy Ends (2018) by David Runciman

With the election only a couple of days away, even the most casual consumer of news is well aware that the stability of United States’ democracy is facing a crucial test. After all, Trump has repeatedly encouraged political violence and members of his party continuously question the legitimacy of the results (only if they lose, of course).

The United States case is not unique: it is clear that democracies worldwide are in serious trouble: Brazil, Hong Kong, Hungary, and Poland are particularly alarming. Of course, none of these systems was ever perfect — far from it. With every day that passes, however, they now seem to slide further and further away from the democratic ideal into a familiar evil: fascism.

In How Democracy Ends — unapologetically fueled by Trump’s election — the Cambridge political scientist David Runciman provides a discerning analysis of how democratic systems might collapse, and what political order might lie beyond.

The book pushes the reader to think past the idea that a non-democracy is necessarily an authoritarian society resembling mid-20th century European fascism, as comparisons are often made. Though he doesn’t minimize the role of history to understand the current political situation, he does think that we should be careful not to draw too much from these analogies: democratic failure today will look much different than democratic failures from the past. Democracy and fascism are only two of the many flavors of political order.

Though the election might not be as smooth as in previous years, more likely than not, Trump will not lead the United States into fascism. (In a conversation with Runciman, Judith Butler argues otherwise.) But, that shouldn’t be too comforting a thought. This is the main takeaway from Runciman’s work: the other alternatives are not that great, either.

True to the title, Runciman suggests many ways that democratic systems might abruptly come to an end. One of his suggestions was that of an existential threat, which has proved to be true for many democracies during the COVID-19 pandemic, where leaders have found ways of capitalizing on their emergency powers.

Two other particularly pernicious threats to democracy are those posed by its gradual erosion, and by technological disruptions. These threats might morph the current system into a different sort of political order.

First, though established democracies are not likely to get overthrown by an overt coup, they might gradually become even less representative in their policy making while leaders quietly bypass imposed checks and balances and suspend existing institutions. This increases the threat of a system becoming a “spectator democracy” where voters are akin to an audience at a theater and voting is analogous to clapping, which has no real effect on the pre-scripted play. In this scenario, then, there would still be freedom of speech and voting rights (unlike in traditional authoritarian regimes), but the people would essentially have no power in policy making decisions. This ‘softer’ option — which is not as physically violent as a coup — seems like a real possibility in United States, not just after November 3rd but also beyond.

Second, Runciman warns of the dangers that technological disruptions pose to democratic order. In particular, he has in mind the growing power of technology companies. Here, I think, Runciman points to the biggest threat facing the United States post-2020. Democracy is increasingly unresponsive to the population’s needs (i.e. becoming spectator democracies), and citizens are more and more dissatisfied with it. This leaves a power vacuum, which technology corporations will be eager to fill with a promise of efficiency that will be in Runciman’s words, “maliciously tempting”.

Unfortunately, Runciman dismisses the threat of disinformation campaigns. Since this book was published in 2018, the existential threats to functioning democracy have only increased. He warns us that if democracies around the world do not get their act together by limiting rising inequality and the further amassment of power of corporations, other alternatives might prove tempting, whether it be the “pragmatic authoritarian” models of Singapore and Russia, or other models that still haven’t been thought of.

Overall, How Democracy Ends is a quick read full of insights that might help clarify some of the confusion that will inevitably happen after Tuesday’s election.