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book review / power

Is Democracy Really Dying?

Why so many commentators share an overly grim view of America’s fate.
Today, of course, despair is back in style. The percentage of people who say that living in a democracy is “essential” has declined, and polls show rising support for nondemocratic forms of government, from technocracy to military rule. An international populist revolt has turned the previously unthinkable—from Britain exiting the European Union to Donald Trump entering the White House—into the new normal. This is a crisis that, provoked by the right, has so far been theorized by the center-left in gloomily titled books ranging from Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, both New York Times best-sellers.

Now two more books have arrived with cases that hover between cautious optimism and measured despair: Cambridge political theorist David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends and conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. Goldberg’s book has been taken up in the beleaguered ranks of the intellectual right as one of the best explanations the movement has for the rise of Trump. Runciman, on the other hand, is too idiosyncratic a thinker to belong to any tribe except the professoriate. Both authors came of age in the 1980s—Runciman was born in 1967, Goldberg in 1969—and made careers in the long 1990s, that period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the financial crisis of 2008. Dire warning about democratic crisis belonged to their childhood, and so did radical challenges to the political system. Intellectual maturity required putting away juvenile delusions—until, suddenly, maturity itself seemed like the delusion.
In their own ways, both push against the conventions of the emerging literature on democracy’s latest breakdown, which has tended to speak in earnest tones of endangered norms and existential threats to the republic. In other ways, they remain trapped in the mental world of the long ’90s, when pragmatists were supposed to limit themselves to tinkering with the status quo—a way of thinking that helped produce today’s populist revolts in the first place. Yes, democracy is again in crisis. But in every democratic crisis lies a political opportunity.
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