The question why some democracies fail and other succeed has generally been the preoccupation of those studying third-world countries, such as India and Pakistan. But the government shutdown has shown that this question should also concern anyone interested in the U.S., as the country’s political system seems more and more dysfunctional compared to Britain’s or Germany’s. The Economist recently reviewed two books by historians that take the longer view and try to explain democracies’ successes and failures. David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present has an interesting theory, according to The Economist:
“Mr Runciman illustrates his thoughts with seven critical episodes: unforeseen war (1918), unexpected slump (1933), threats to post-war Europe (1947), possible annihilation in the Cuban missile crisis (1962), stagflation (1974), short-lived triumphalism (1989) and financial meltdown (2008).
Add those up, and you get a fair list of the challenges facing present-day democracies. So why do they repeat mistakes? Oddly, perhaps, for a historian, Mr Runciman suggests that ignoring the past is a democratic strength. Old problems recur, but never quite in the same form. Unlike autocracies, which are “fatalistic” and inflexible, democracies expect the future to be different. Counting on ceaseless change, in other words, helps democracy adapt and muddle through.”
As a historian, I am obviously a strong supporter of not ignoring the past. Had the Republicans looked back closely at 1996, they might have realized that shutting down the government was a bad idea. Either way, The Confidence Trap seems like an interesting book.