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
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.