Where might democracy be making itself obsolete right now without the need for any revolutions or coups or hostile takeovers? Where might today’s liberal democracies in fact be leading the way on such social, political, technological transformations? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to David Runciman. This present conversation (transcribed by Christopher Raguz) focuses on Runciman’s book How Democracy Ends. Runciman is a professor of Politics at Cambridge University. He hosts the weekly podcast Talking Politics and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor.
ANDY FITCH: As I read through How Democracy Ends, “How Democracy Fails” almost seemed to fit better as a title. To “end” suggests more of a definitive break, more like the 20th-century military coups you describe, whereas one can “fail” and have things fall apart, or fail and just keep going on that way, or fail and not even recognize it, or only recognize it much later. But here we quickly arrive at questions of where precisely to locate democratic functioning (in constitutional documents, in tacit institutional arrangements, in a broader cultural ethos, in individual citizens’ everyday civic practice, etcetera). And here maybe the more stark, definitive connotations of “to end” can help to clarify some of these definitional questions. So if we are in fact approaching a situation in which democracy may end, could you outline a few local cases of what that end might look like — both in terms of potentially preventable failures that we (with our blissful trust in self-perpetuating institutions, or our anxious fixation on more familiar threats) simply didn’t see coming, and in terms of bigger external forces that democracy perhaps just cannot withstand?
DAVID RUNCIMAN: This book comes out of a series of thoughts provoked by Donald Trump’s election. The first thought actually was: This is not how democracy ends. Instead this book tries to say that the end of democracy is not something we will see or recognize in some single event. Many recent books do offer that type of scenario. So it does matter to me that the title distinguishes between “democracy” and “democracies.” Individual democracies might face a moment of truth, when something that has existed ceases to exist. But democracy as a phenomenon raises much more open-ended questions. And part of our difficulty in grasping this present moment, and in thinking about the future of our politics, comes from us struggling to imagine anything outside of democracy. We tend to think in binary terms about either clinging to democracy or facing the end, the abyss, whatever.
So I wanted to explore how we could or should think about democracy’s end. I agree with you that “failure” maybe has more of the flavor of the specific situations that this book examines, in terms of gradual, incremental processes — whereas “end” suggests one definitive moment. I do want to look for spaces where we can see a future politics that’s beyond what we have right now. But we also need to be aware that our current preoccupations with contemporary democratic failure, and with providing solutions to save democracy, probably won’t lead anywhere all that useful.
I guess I hope to achieve some sort of balancing act. I try, on the one hand, to think about what might lie beyond democracy, in temporal terms. At the same time, I try to move away from presenting specific events, or the failure of particular democracies, as signals of “the end.”
Still in terms of parsing “democracy” from “democracies,” I admire how your work combines a commitment to liberal-democratic institutions alongside a non-nostalgic baseline assumption that racist and sexist dominance means, for instance, that American democracy comes about long after the U.S. Constitution gets ratified. That interpretive perspective also left me wondering, though, whether your book addresses the potential end of a quite specific historical era, more than the categorical eclipse of democracy. And as I tried to pinpoint precisely when American democracy (in your terms) might come into being, the timeline narrowed even further — to something like a discrete historical moment. Do we need to wait, for example, for Civil Rights-era enfranchisements, and then expanded feminist agency, and then get through at least the Nixon’s administration’s authoritarian dabblings, before we arrive at U.S. democracy? And then when does that emergent democracy start contracting: with Reagan’s race-baiting 1980 election victory? Or with the George W. Bush administration’s response to September 11th, 2001? Or in 2014 (at least if one conceives of executive aggrandizement as the biggest threat facing 21st-century democracy)? Or 2016? Or more broadly, what distilled elements from whichever quite brief democratic flourish seem most worth extracting and articulating as consciously as we can so that we now can carry them forward?
Well someone definitely could make the case that democracy has never existed in a form that comes halfway close to the abstract idea. We’re talking about a compromise on an idea that’s maybe more something we always should be striving towards. So in that sense we should think less in terms of democracy’s ends, and more in terms of beginnings. Maybe we only have reached the early stages of climbing towards the real thing.
But I come at this from a different register — not a political-theory register, more as a historian. When I talk about concrete historical institutions and outcomes within this contemporary period, I’d point to the successful democracies sharing a specific set of characteristics. Each possesses (in its own way, and compared to historical norms) an extraordinary adaptability and ability to cope with crises. Each offers a distinct connection between social and economic progress. Recently we’ve tended to emphasize the racism and lingering social hierarchies within democratic states. But democracies also have enhanced social and political progress in ways that still allow me to think of this as a success story and undoubted phenomenon in its own right, even if only a brief one. The kinds of democratic states and societies we live in perhaps coincide with my lifetime and my parents’ lifetime, and maybe will extend to my children’s lifetime. They combine legitimate elections, robust political parties, various freedoms of communication and expression, various established rights. I recognize that as a distinctive historical combination, and again, were this all to come to an end, I don’t think it would end with one particular event on one particular day. I don’t envision the collapse of democracy as the day when the generals take over, though I still do think that democracy definitely has the capacity to cease to function and ultimately cease to exist.
Here of course we drift towards a whole additional set of definitional questions, in terms of parsing notions of direct democracy and representative democracy, again with both models manifesting their own self-contradictions (with contemporary direct democracy making space more for an infantilizing “yes / no” referendum decision than for proactive self-governance, and with representative democracy, in your book’s depiction, always wanting what it can’t have, wishing to become more accountable, more transparent, even as its exclusionary, opaque operations can’t help complicating or subverting any purest claims to democratic practice). So again, given all of these inevitable snags in defining “democracy,” all of which your book recognizes, why do you still foreground democracy as a primary conceptual tool, here in almost Churchillian fashion — recognizing it as the worst possible term to use except for all of the other terms that have been tried?
You’re right to try to distinguish these various frames. We could differentiate, for example, specific instances of representative government from democracy as an ideal. Representative government goes back to the 18th century. A continuity exists in how these institutions increasingly do bring, across their 18th- and 19th-century guises, a real democratic component. Still Britain and the States had forms of representative government well before I’d call them democracies. Liberalism does have a longer history. But this particular book’s timespan presents the story of our modernity. It stays closer to our present and to the world of people currently alive, most of whom have lived through a large part of this democratic timespan. While I address trans-generational phenomena, I still want to stay with this more recent story, during which a distinctive and highly successful form of politics binds representative institutions with liberal norms and values — with certain types of popular consultation, and with decisions made by electorates at decisive historical moments. I don’t think you can get that particular combination outside the category of democracy.
You’ve sketched the book’s timespan, and scaled this book’s scope to individual human lifespans. I enjoyed how How Democracy Ends first acknowledges problems associated with theorizing politics through some elaborate analogy to the individual human being, and then offers its own such analogy anyway. Here we get your account of democracy facing a midlife crisis: characterized by a somewhat contradictory mix of exhaustion and complacency and anger, seeking some impossible reversion to a more youthful condition, sensing that its greatest triumphs occurred when it still had room to grow (by, for instance, enfranchising more of its citizens, establishing a sustainable tax base, expanding the everyday reach of government), presently preoccupied more with what it has lost than with what it hasn’t yet even tried. I could see any number of questions spinning off from this midlife-crisis analogy. Since the U.S. currently disenfranchises so many of its own voters, for example, I wonder if more straightforward democratic growth couldn’t still be possible after all.
Right I hope it’s clear that this midlife-crisis analogy indicates that we maybe haven’t yet reached the end. Of course in the middle of one’s life, in the midst of such a crisis, it can feel existential and terminal. But maybe you still can find new room to grow. Most importantly, you first need to find the right perspective, and not judge yourself by familiar, more youthful standards — from when life felt completely open.
I do believe that, in the case of American democracy, some things lost at present still could be recaptured. Americans could develop a much fuller understanding of what it means for citizens to be enfranchised and to participate. There’s no question American democracy has experienced a reversion that still could be reversed yet again. But more broadly, middle-aged democracies face problems of imagination. In our democracies’ midlife crises, people feel frustrated, trapped by foreclosed experiences. That’s different from feeling that one has no alternatives. It suggests a crisis of imagination, and maybe an overreliance on our earlier, more familiar stories of growth and expansion. We start to sense that we’ve fallen behind, or lost track of what we should be achieving. We dwell on these perceived failures, rather than exploring the places and spaces where we haven’t yet tried all that much.
You feel this in the British context quite strongly, where we almost can’t help framing these questions, even about our future, through a relatively narrow set of familiar institutional practices. We need to rethink possibilities for experimenting at the local level, at the international level — for developing new ways in which citizens can participate (and not just through referenda, but through more active forms of consultation and deliberation).
So it could be that, when we look back to the early 20th century, we encounter a world that was much more open. But it also could be that some future person, looking back on our present politics, will think that we simply failed to spot the wide range of spaces where we could have experimented. All of that gets much harder to see when you arrive, as we have, at the middle part of your own story. This story’s first half may have served you pretty well, before you started getting frustrated by it. But then, just as in a relationship or a job or whatever, that middle phase can start to feel like a trap — and again, not because this story has failed you, but because it has succeeded for you. That can be the harder situation.
Well I wondered while reading if your midlife-crisis metaphor would throw kids into the mix, and if you would speculate on what our present democracy’s children might look like, and how we might most constructively live in part through vicarious identification with their own accomplishments. Let’s say, for instance, that we find ourselves moving towards democratic or post-democratic circumstances far from how we might have envisioned them. What might still allow us to feel a strong sense of affinity, even of nurturing responsibility, for these new circumstances?
I haven’t thought about it before like this. But in a way, democracy is kind of childless. It would be much easier if we could think about and agree upon nascent institutions or norms we want to nurture and to help grow. I don’t see a lot of that thinking right now. Certainly it’s not obvious to me where these offspring are. Of course we may still find them, and we shouldn’t foreclose the possibility of such developments to come.
Here I’ll take your question a slightly different way. It does seem distinct to our present that when we discuss democracies and many of their institutions reaching their middle age, this overlaps with demographic patterns in which societies’ domestic populations have reached a certain age. It does seem that our current democratic discontent often corresponds to the discontent of middle-aged and older people. Of course our younger citizens feel their own frustrations and anxieties, but these tend at present (and to our detriment) to get drowned out. Even more since finishing this book, I’ve thought about our democratic societies (or really any societies), for the first time in human history, reaching a point at which the relatively old outnumber the relatively young.
The conventional view suggests the benefits of relatively older people having children and grandchildren, and providing that continuity and helping us think about future possibilities. But I do sense as one fundamental characteristic of midlife crises that you get caught up in kind of a selfish moment. And to make this scenario even a bit more bleak, I’d note that the people at present who have the most useful life experience have become much more conscious about what they don’t want to leave behind or to lose. So we see in contemporary politics this huge generational divide, with young people much more open to experimentation and future possibilities, but feeling out-voted by older generations, and with older voters feeling trapped between the desire to do something different and this sense that they shouldn’t give up on what has served them well. I say all of this as a middle-aged person, 51 years old. I’m not sure if I’ve entered my own midlife crisis, but I do feel that sense of being torn between a desire for change and a resistance to change, a desire to experiment and a real terror of experimentation. That seems a distinctive bind of our present democratic crisis, and perhaps quite difficult to get out of.
Here I also appreciate your book’s broader reflections on how recent technological developments provide societies (democratic or not) with new resources for potentially enhancing overall economic well-being, and / or for each individual’s pursuit of personal dignity or identity — but with democracies having a difficult time harnessing these seemingly divergent trajectories into some coherent collective vector or venture or galvanizing enterprise. Or even as I asked about democracy’s “children,” I sensed the need to negotiate concerns about established democracies picking up “paternalistic” and “patronizing” colonial legacies, while still wanting to be generative, to spawn / foster new developments. And here I wondered if, say, Scandinavian countries, or Canada (countries who have proactively figured out ways to engage across the contemporary world) face these same existential midlife dilemmas.
An analogy like the midlife crisis definitely faces the danger of making this all too unifying, and of insisting that we’re all on the same trajectory. We’re clearly not. Individual democratic societies experience the present in quite different ways. I hope this book pushes back, for example, against any overly generalized conception of populist politics sweeping across the world today. Undoubtedly much does connect Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, as politicians and in terms of the movements they represent, the tactics and strategies they employ. But it makes no sense to place American democracy and Indian democracy at the same point in their respective life-cycles. Their lives will continue to play out quite differently. Canada, Scandinavia, America, various parts of Europe (including of course Hungary and Poland), various parts of Asia, of Africa — all will have quite different stories. Everyone’s midlife crisis will depart from the rest, but I still think that all such democracies probably will face some form of this crisis. I don’t see any nations as already having come out on the other side of this midlife crisis, and finding themselves more reconciled with their present stage of life.
Of course some countries you mentioned already might be thinking in more creative terms that extend beyond themselves. Though maybe I’m missing it here, but I don’t see any Scandinavian or Canadian examples yet showing us how to make it out to the other side. Again I think they’ve just reached their own distinctive stage of democratic self-questioning. In Scandinavia, we still might see social tensions get much worse. I certainly think the European stories still might get more difficult across the board. I see no democracies which we could point to as well-adjusted and free of discontent.
Part of this present crisis does mean that we find ourselves in a phase of being pulled in many different directions. We haven’t found a way of mashing it all together again. My book suggests that the previous, more successful period of democracy’s story actually may be an outlier period, with an unprecedented and maybe unsustainable coming together of creative solutions, concrete results, and tangible benefits for citizens — and with the dignity-, voice-, and identity-enhancing powers of democracy also perhaps operating more as the historical exception than the rule.
At present, you do see these various tendencies splitting off in different directions. And we may need to accept that splitting off. We can’t necessarily have identity-enhancement and democratic problem-solving neatly meshed together all the time. We may have to prioritize between them. We may have to think through the best possible compromises and trade-offs between those two possibilities. That’s part of what it means right now to open ourselves up to a different imaginative space.
In terms of that mid-20th-century convergence of various social forces, forces maybe now splitting apart again, one perennial problem your book poses involves how to harness resentful populist energies into some more progressive, more collectivist enterprise — and how to break from the historical precedent in which only war and / or pervasive disaster have catalyzed whole cultures in this constructive direction. And if we acknowledge that even as successful democracies mitigate mass suffering, they almost inevitably exacerbate social / economic inequalities, then to what extent are we discussing the problematics of capitalism as much as of democracy? Could you explain the extent to which, and the reasons why, your book might conflate those two concepts and lived social systems? Or for a different way of approaching this question: do you see any democracies close to ending in capitalist countries with the most extensive modes of economic redistribution?
I hope I don’t conflate democracy and capitalism. I don’t believe that democracy and capitalism always come together — even if, today, we want to think through productive relationships between these two, and not alternatives to capitalism. Alternatives to capitalism seem pretty thin on the ground at the moment, especially when you factor in India and China.
For the longer story of this more productive relationship between democracy and capitalism (in the sense of solving problems, delivering growth, enhancing identity), we could take the example of Europe’s 20th-century history. Catastrophes from that century’s first half often took the form of massive breakdowns in this relationship between democracy and capitalism. These disasters came about due to the inability of democratic politics to manage crises of capitalism. Following two major wars, we finally do see certain countries, for roughly 60 years (or maybe closer to 30 years), put together this highly contingent, relatively brief, quite successful combination. But now we might be returning to a longer-term, more fundamental story of how democratic politics and capitalism can’t help conflicting.
Personally, I am not sure we can and need to recapture that complete package. I also often find myself arguing with people who come from a mini-generation below mine, for whom the 1990s represent how the world always ought to be, whereas I consider the 1990s a pretty unusual decade, not a template with which to judge everything else. We need to understand how unusual that decade was, just as the 1950s and 1960s in European politics were so unusual. And here I do want us to think about the contingency of this relationship between democracy and capitalism — which I still think of as the key relationship.
Again, one symptom of our midlife crisis involves believing that we’re trapped, and that, since we’re trapped, our only hope is to try something really radical — because the societal relations that have taken us this far just can’t take us any farther. And one concrete form such thinking takes in our current politics seeks to question the entire capitalist project. I’m skeptical that this questioning will provide any way out of our crisis. I think we need to open up the imaginative space where this contingent relationship between democracy and capitalism can be reinvented, without needing to repeat that one particular 20th-century success story.
Again in terms of finding a suitable adversary, of course one might hope that climate change, rather than some projected national enemy, could play that role at present. Your book argues that the unequally distributed threats that climate change poses, alongside our overexposure to apocalyptic visions, make it difficult for climate concerns to catalyze a constructive collective response today. But I would assume that, say, Silent Spring’s early-1960s argument likewise could have seemed far too localized for an anxious nuclear age already preoccupied by prospects of global armageddon. And yet Rachel Carson’s book did in fact prove quite galvanizing in its moment. So what would be your most persuasive case for why certain democracies (of course especially the U.S.) must pick up the daunting, unavoidable, existential (and yet potentially transformative, rejuvenative) challenges posed by climate change more robustly? Or alternately, what might it mean (both for climate change and for democracy) for an authoritarian China increasingly to fill the vacuum left by U.S.-led abdication on such concerns?
I do find it quite interesting that (but haven’t come to any conclusions on why) certain ways of framing problems do seem galvanizing in their moment. Of course some social phenomena you can only reflect on in hindsight. Who knew a book that’s not easy to read, by a relatively obscure French economist (Thomas Piketty), would become as influential as it has? Who am I to say what might galvanize us? So I’ll just give you some ramblings here.
I often refer to a book I reviewed a few years ago that has stayed with me — a book presenting 1979 as the year that changed the trajectory of modern politics, directing us into this neoliberal era. It focuses on the primary people shaping politics at that moment, including Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, and Ayatollah Khomeini. What most struck me when reading this book was how all of these people came from nowhere. Even five years before they changed the world, you never could have predicted that those four would have such an impact. They were in exile or had failed. Thatcher was a failed education secretary. John Paul was the Bishop of Krakow. But five years later their stories take us into a period in which enormous change becomes possible, and you just can’t predict where it might come from next.
Those are the politicians and the moments that capture our collective imagination. I do think that’s hard in this cacophonous world (of course that’s also a democracy-enhancing feature of our current communications technology — if you go back just 30 or 40 years, there’s a quite narrow set of people for whom this type of public expression ever would be possible). So again we are being pulled in two directions. Galvanizing ideas can come now from so many different places. But it also keep getting harder and harder for us to hear them amid so much volume of noise and opinion. And if you combine that all with the structural difficulties posed by climate change, I find it hard to imagine enough people being sufficiently galvanized by a single voice.
But we do need our democracies to take up challenges that stretch our institutions and our imaginations, and that galvanize us in these ways. We may feel stuck, but if you took someone from 30 years ago (just from the late 1980s) and showed them our contemporary world, I think they’d be struck by how much everything had changed — except for the way we do politics. How can we progress through these incredibly transformative experiences (not just from new communications technologies, not just due to an economic existential crisis, but basic changes to our everyday lived experiences) and yet still maintain more or less the same political arrangements and institutions? That’s the question which convinces me that something’s got to give, and quite soon, whether institutionally or in how we conduct our democracies. Over this (and maybe any) 10- to 15-year period, you feel both the need and the possibility for a huge reinvention. But I still find it hard at present to tell you where it all might come from.
Alongside cacophony, and alongside catastrophism, do you see your book offering any concrete suggestions for how to address the problematics of perspectivism? Here, for one concrete case, we could take 2016’s coup attempt in Turkey. How Democracy Ends describes well how this failed coup could reassure us that the threats coups used to pose have become obsolete, or could reinforce our fears that we need to remain ever vigilant about the threat posed by coups, or (when combined with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s subsequent executive-power grab) could confirm our conspiracy theory that Erdoğan himself fabricated this coup in the first place. By extension, it’s not hard to envision everybody-believes-what-they-want-to-believe scenarios occurring when the Robert Mueller investigation releases its findings, or whenever the next gray-zone war gets started, or whenever the next social-media platform further separates seemingly irreconcilable socio-cultural communities. And of course, there are also all of those crises of perception / interpretation / self-selection coming that we can’t even anticipate. So do any contemporary theoretical models, civic or institutional practices, or even technological innovations seem worth highlighting as a means for making us more resilient in anticipation of such prospects for intensified (and intensely polarized) perspectivism?
Here I would note both a specific and a general version of that problem. This problem’s specific version comes from how we use outmoded categories. We’ll want to identify a clearly defined coup, a hostile takeover of democracy, real villains we can blame — though it rarely now works this way, even in quite dysfunctional democracies. We still use these outmoded categories, with everybody accusing everyone else of fomenting a coup or of threatening democracy. So you’re either with Trump or against Trump, either attacking democracy or saving democracy. We expect this moment of truth to come, even if those definitive moments no longer exist.
So at this basic level, we have to get away from using the wrong terms and the wrong categories. They can corrode our politics if we just get stuck endlessly repeating the same debates — or if we keep calling each other out as the conspirators of the plot, while never resolving serious problems. And the fact that we can’t even arrive at a consensus on what’s happening (let alone how we feel about it) poses an acute problem for our politics. So just to start with, we’ll need to temper our expectations, moderate our language, find the right categories and conversations.
I hesitate to offer any glib solutions here, and I’d stress how unlikely it seems that we’ll find solutions to our democracies’ problems that feel democratic to everyone involved. I sense that the solution to this problem of lacking a shared perspective will only emerge out of a world where we’ll continue to lack a shared perspective. This will certainly require some mixture of technical fixes, combined with a recognition that some solutions to our problems will not be democratic solutions, because they’ll come from non-democratic actors — whether tech companies or expert bodies of some kind.
Now I’m not that kind of expert. That’s part of the problem [Laughter]. But we can’t just carry on asking these platforms to fix themselves, and corporate entities to fix themselves. Here I actually feel the most pessimistic.
Well in terms of that pessimism, it might seem strange to claim, along Nietzschean lines, that in the face of ever-proliferating perspectivism threatening to tear whole cultures (and individuals) apart, one foundational need might be better art. But here I’d start from your point that tech-driven innovations increasingly reshape the operations of democracy in ways we can’t control and don’t even understand. I’d ask what particular function we can expect democratically elected human decision-makers to play in the future (or what precisely any future electoral process should be choosing). And here your sketch of future political leaders as explainers-in-chief, as distinctly talented at understanding and communicating solutions offered by machines, seems in some ways to require the skill-sets of certain types of poets as much as of policy visionaries (again redefining what “representative” democracy might mean). Or from a more philosophical orientation, I think of the most profound questions we’ll face as often Nietzschean questions of valuation — in terms of proactively determining which problems we most need to solve, rather than allowing technological inertia to direct us towards addressing the problems our machines are best equipped to solve. So, without seeming to offer yet another desperate defense of the humanities, might I ask what role aesthetic refinement, innovative means of representation, philosophical reflection might play in helping democracy survive and thrive? And did any related concerns convince you to embark on your own “fool’s errand” here, speculatively constructing this book’s epilogue scene of the U.S.’s 2053 election?
Excellent question. I should say that this book I’ve written is not exclusively pessimistic, and I’ve been cheered to hear some readers actually describe it as quite optimistic. And you’re right to focus on that passage where I discuss our anxieties about machines replacing humans in all decisive domains, and then the counterview that we can further enhance our distinctly human capacities — to provide a productive complementarity between problem-solving and connecting these solutions with lived human experience. Along the way, we might need to tap certain kinds of creativity and imaginative engagement that today’s machines don’t have, and that we maybe even didn’t realize we ourselves possessed. But to get there will mean giving up something, and I say again at the end of this book that we’ll probably have to give up on parts of that complete 20th-century liberal-democratic package.
So maybe some functions and responsibilities of what we now consider the democratic state will have to be transferred to machines or technically enhanced solutions. And here we’ll need to determine which uniquely human capacities we should hook onto these technical solutions, to make them politically meaningful. That will require new skills of storytelling, empathy, recognition of the diversity of human experience — and it will require new capacities to be surprised, to recognize both our own limitations and our unrealized potential. And there’s no reason politicians should stay out of these discussions. In a way, politicians ought to stand at the forefront. One reason that’s so hard at present is because the stories our politicians (even the more radical politicians) tell us today still get framed through the complete 20th-century democratic package. You have to be really brave in a democratic context to say: “I’ll give you a partial democratic package. We’ll have to abandon certain parts, but you’ll get an enhanced version of the other parts.”
We haven’t arrived there yet, and we do face the risk of having our democratic practices frozen in place, unable to reinvent themselves as circumstances demand, with society’s truly creative thinking going around our democratic institutions, instead of going through them. Nietzsche definitely opens up this possibility for human flourishing to go around politics. I consider those quite live possibilities in the 21st century, whereas in the 20th century’s second half, much of our creative thinking went through politics. We now might leave much political decision-making behind, and I’m enough of a conservative to consider that a big risk. When we start to think we need to step beyond politics, a quite dangerous path can open before us.
Therefore, we absolutely do need to believe in the possibility for new forms of creative political expression, for political imaginings that can take us beyond this present moment. I don’t see a lot of that. I don’t see it in the current politicians appealing to people who want something radically “different” and “new.” We face a generational moment in which young people might want a new kind of politics, but only see it embodied in these old politicians. It’s almost impossible to find a creative, vital, imaginative politics coming from a Jeremy Corbyn. But I sense this present moment might pass quite soon, and then we’ll have the possibility for truly different storytellers from a new generation. I’m all for that.
Now taking up more speculative existential risks, I’ve heard people laugh when you mention threats posed by, say, self-proliferating nanotech robots. I, personally, don’t laugh, though I don’t think the whole “gray goop” discussion has gotten us very far in terms of a poetic formulation [Laughter] illuminating for the public a serious threat we face. Existential risks, in your book’s account, expose acute vulnerabilities in democratic systems, since democracies don’t have a great track record of adequately addressing concerns anticipated by experts but never experienced by significant swaths of the population. Existential risks don’t leave us any room to wait for a persuasive demonstration of the dangers they pose. Existential risks seem to demand a specialized, technocratic, top-down management style in many ways antithetical to democratic decision-making. So again, where at present do you see theorists of robust democracy most adeptly addressing existential-risk scenarios?
That’s another big challenge pulling us in very different directions. In Cambridge, where I work, I see people at our Centre for the Study of Existential Risk grappling with these problems you’ve mentioned. I think they increasingly recognize that the pure air of existential-risk thinking doesn’t connect with most of the public. That gulf is too wide. So we constantly need to find creative ways to connect these existential risks back to everyday political decisions, but without dwelling in apocalyptic scenarios that make us ignore practical, real-world concerns. And we need to connect these technical questions with broader imaginative and emotional appeals — whether through art or other forms of creative thinking. Here Cormac McCarthy’s The Road stands out as one great, galvanizing existential text for our time. I don’t know a single human being who has read this book and not been completely freaked out and moved by it. It makes no direct connection to our contemporary politics, yet still makes you feel and think deeply about our collective future. And the politician who can link Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Nick Bostrom’s anxieties about superintelligence — that politician owns the future. That’s a difficult task, but it shouldn’t be impossible. This particular challenge of making end-of-the-world scenarios a galvanizing cause seems the hardest, but perhaps also the most important for our politics.
Too often we still consider it young people’s responsibility to do all the existential worrying for us. We expect our young people to fret about climate change and artificial intelligence, while old people can just fret about pensions and home-ownership. But our young people have enough on their plate fighting these old people for basic material goods. Our old people are winning everywhere. And of course the winners also should be worrying about this stuff. So again the politician who can bridge these gaps (though we’ve never had a single politician bridge all these gaps) really has a wide range of political possibilities. The future is, by definition, far more open than the past, so we do have to imagine that this all is still possible.
Well to close, how would you frame How Democracy Ends’ take on epistocracy, in which one’s right to political participation comes not simply from bearing the consequences of whatever decisions get made, but from in fact being recognized in advance as a competent decision-maker? And perhaps most importantly, given your own intellectual grounding in ceaseless (nonreversible, never fully repeating) historical change, given how, say in Plato’s Republic, the epistocratic state gets arranged so that nothing ever changes (and yet it all still eventually falls apart), how might an epistocracy maintain any sense of institutional continuity even as the skill-sets demanded of it themselves keep shifting? I’m sure conversations on epistocracy have posed this question a million times over in more interesting ways than my present formulation, but does the hope that an epistocracy would be best positioned to address those problems that we can’t yet anticipate seem inherently self-contradictory from the start? Wouldn’t different pressing problems demand entirely different epistocracies?
You do hear epistocratic models being taken increasingly seriously. I’ve found that striking in the last few years. If you live in a university town you hear people say things they never would have said in the past. In Cambridge, amid the Brexit vote, I’d hear (to my amazement) people say: “I’m not sure about this underlying principle of democracy, with everyone getting an equal say.” So I find it necessary to take epistocratic possibilities seriously, because I hear other people take them seriously.
The thing that epistocracies most lack is this one quality that democracies always have — democracies never second-guess the future. They leave it open. Epistocracies completely commit themselves to one particular future, in which a select group of particularly well-qualified people will address certain anticipated problems.
But we see in history’s ceaseless churn that it never works out quite like that. Therefore epistocracy with no democratic underpinnings always carries the danger of leaving you with the wrong experts providing perfectly plausible answers for the wrong questions — never addressing the most pressing problems that you face. And of course even the right experts get it wrong sometimes. So we do need democracy’s pragmatic side, which never considers any question settled, which constantly adapts to people’s lived experience. And as a culture starts to achieve a particular future, it begins to change its perceptions of that future. Again epistocracy shows its limitations here.
Of course my book also points out the crucial significance of historical sequencing. The modern age’s great champion of epistocracy, John Stuart Mill, was also a great liberal and hero of democratic programs. Mill’s epistocratic model comes at the dawn of modern democracy, and precedes any deeper, richer democratic politics. Mill wanted society eventually to progress from an epistocratic politics towards a more democratic politics. He thought you could start to establish a democracy by giving the most voting power to educated people, but that over time, as the entire population becomes more educated, voting powers will become much more equal.
At present, epistocracy would mean taking voting power away from certain people. This would add yet another toxic, confrontational side to our contemporary democracies. I can’t imagine us stabilizing such an epistocracy, but rather falling into technocracy. And if we go down this route, we end up giving decision power to the engineers, rather than to those with the supposedly deepest wisdom. Again, that’s a dead end once you’ve already experienced democracy.