Despite being one of the United States’s founding statesmen and its second president after independence from Britain, John Adams was quite skeptical of democracy. “Democracy never lasts long,” Adams reflected in an 1814 letter. “It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
“There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
The United States that existed when Adams wrote the letter was not very worthy of being described as a democracy in any case. Millions of African-Americans held in slavery were denied the most basic human rights, while women were denied any meaningful participation in civic life. Not until the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage in the 20th century could the United States start to be considered a full-fledged democracy, despite the country’s founding under the false flag of democracy in 1776. American democracy, in any meaningful sense of the term, is then less than a century old.
Recent events suggest that, even now, American democracy may be starting to enter a decrepit late-middle age. While many people assume that our current political turbulence is an aberration, long-term trends suggest that undemocratic illiberalism may one day become the norm in the United States and elsewhere. Democracy is eroding and may no longer be a plausible means of governance. Technological change, decaying institutions, and populist demagoguery may well make genuine democracy effectively impossible, validating Adams’s prediction that a democratic system could never really endure.
A new book by Cambridge University professor David Runciman, provocatively titled “How Democracy Ends,” charts a number of trends in the United States and Europe that he believes foretell the approaching end of democracy as we know it. Among the threats we face are global problems like climate change and inequality, which our dysfunctional democratic systems have proven incapable of responding to.
Yet the end of democracy does not mean a return to any recognizable, pre-democratic past. Unlike many other gloomy predictions of democracy giving way to something like 1930s European fascism, Runciman argues that the unique nature of our modern societies means that, if the end comes, it will happen in a much more subtle way. Rather than a military coup d’état or the unilateral annulment of a vote by a strongman, in the West, democracy is more likely to simply fracture and fizzle out over time. As our political institutions become less and less able to deliver meaningful results and the speed of technological change continues to warp and remake society, democracy could effectively die while continuing to appear alive — “Weekend at Bernie’s”-style — for years to come.
“If you look 20, 30 or 40 years ahead, we are almost certainly going to continue having elections. The elections will still have lots of sound and fury and talk of change, but the technology and structures of modern life will mean that the change that can be accomplished by voting will be very limited,” Runciman writes. “The system that exists may not be either democratic or authoritarian, but rather a kind of ‘half-life’ democracy that could continue existing for a long time.”
Runciman cites a number of gradual “coups” that could kill or cripple a democracy without us clearly noticing what’s taken place. Among the more subtle types of power grabs available in mature democracies is executive aggrandizement by a sitting government, whereby elected leaders, once in power, begin to attack democratic institutions like the press and civil society groups, bullying them into submission and slowly hollowing out democracy from the inside. Another possible tactic is strategic election manipulation, whereby elections are never outright tampered with to the degree that they can be described as “stolen,” but are creatively manipulated just enough that they are never truly free and fair either.
Do these methods of the soft coup sound harrowingly familiar? In the United States, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his hostility to core democratic institutions, though his actions have not yet matched its heated rhetoric about institutions such as the media and courts. The alleged manipulation of the 2016 election by foreign powers possibly acting in concert with Trump has raised some doubt about how fair the election actually was, though the investigation into the level of manipulation is still ongoing.
Even when discounting allegations of hacking and collusion, the febrile information environment that surrounded Trump’s campaign clearly undermined the integrity of the process as a whole. Even if Trump did not collude with a foreign power to sway the vote, the level of disinformation that targeted prospective voters through new mediums of communication like Facebook suggests that the outcome of the election may not have been a product of sober public reason — a necessary element of a fully functioning democracy. With more sophisticated and genuinely terrifying forms of “fake news” already in development, national elections decided on the basis of falsehood and conspiracy could become proliferate, a development that would make a mockery out of the democratic process.
There may be yet another anti-democratic trend out there that has embedded itself so deeply in the body politic that we scarcely even notice anymore. The capture of democratic institutions by organized elites can slowly hollow out politics, transforming it over time into a soulless simulacrum of democracy. Even before Trump, many Americans may have already been reduced to passive consumers of a spectacle, rather than citizens of an active democracy. As Runciman writes:
A coup d’etat works on the basis of intimidation and coercion. But a coup that hides behind the workings of democracy can hope to get by on the public’s innate passivity. In most functioning democracies, the people are bystanders much of the time anyway. They watch on as political decisions are taken on their behalf by elected representatives who then ask for their assent at election time. If that’s what democracy has become, it provides excellent cover for the attempt to undermine democracy, because the two look remarkably similar.
Referring to this as “zombie democracy,” Runciman goes on to describe a state of affairs in which “the people are simply watching a performance in which their role is to give or withhold applause at the appropriate moments.” Rather than an expression of civic life, politics instead becomes “an elaborate show, needing ever more characterful performers to hold the public’s attention.”
Barack Obama was sometimes criticized for being a “celebrity president” whose soaring, quasi-religious rhetoric masked what was essentially a standard liberal-technocratic platform. But the subsequent election of Trump — a literal reality TV entertainer — seems to epitomize the extent to which democratic politics has been reduced to a pageant of entertainment and provocation. Whether intentional or not, Trump has learned how to manipulate the attention economy of modern society by successfully focusing huge amounts of daily media attention on himself. This cycle has now gone on for years.
During the election, Trump was estimated to have received the equivalent of $5 billion in free advertising — based on news coverage compared against standard ad rates — from media organizations whose owners often expressed naked excitement over the boon that his anti-democratic antics were providing to their bottom lines. Little has changed since his election. According to a Harvard study published in January, Trump was the focus of an incredible 41 percent of all American news coverage during his first 100 days in office — three times the coverage given to previous presidents. His manipulation of social media, particularly Twitter, as well as the 24-hour cable news cycle has given him a yearslong psychological grip on the entire country that shows no sign of abating.
In the dystopian future depicted by George Orwell in “1984,” democracy is bludgeoned into submission by totalitarian brutality. In many ways, it was the competing post-democratic vision of Aldous Huxley, articulated in his famous novel “Brave New World,” that seems to be closer to fruition. Huxley argued that freedom would be slowly eaten alive by technological change and an insatiable public appetite for entertainment. Reflecting on that possibility in his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” cultural critic Neil Postman wrote, “As he” — Huxley — “saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
“It’s clear that with regards to the major issues of our time – such as climate change and inequality – our institutions are unable to respond.”
Today, massive amounts of personal data harvested by companies like Google and Facebook are already raising the possibility that democracy could become superfluous, with powerful algorithms potentially able to make more “rational” political choices than any of us with our own limited consciousness. Seemingly innocuous social networking platforms and search engines have revealed themselves to be able to rewire our brains, transforming our politics and potentially ending our liberal societies as we know them.
If democracy is being killed by demagogues and tech companies, what comes next? Runciman argues that the looming end of democracy is not necessarily a cause for despair. The failure of old institutions opens the door for new arrangements, including local communities making positive use of technology to reorganize themselves and create more effective forms of civic participation. While John Adams may have been correct that existing forms of democracy would eventually start to whither, it may create the space for new possibilities to reveal themselves.
“There are many parts of American society and politics that still work and democracy is still quite vibrant at the state and local level, though it’s clear that with regards to the major issues of our time – such as climate change and inequality – our institutions are unable to respond,” Runciman writes. “But it seems ridiculous that in this time of incredible change that the future of politics has only one possible path or set of options. Coming out of the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, political choice seemed very limited. But now the future is wide open. And there is some hope in that.”