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David Runciman

Professor of Politics


How democracy works matters for all of us in a way that it hasn’t before in my adult lifetime.  But the bigger question is whether it still works at all.  That is much harder to answer.  In tumultuous times, there are twin temptations in how we tend to think about what’s happening.  One is to look for historical precedents that will map for us where we are heading.  The second is to assume that no one has ever lived through anything like this and we are facing a future that is entirely new.


At the moment, I think the first is a bigger danger than the second.  As democracy wobbles, we look to the twentieth century for evidence of what will make it collapse.  I have lost count of the number of times I have seen our current predicament compared to what happened to democracy in the 1930s.  I am convinced that this is a big mistake.  Though there are unpleasant echoes of earlier instances of democratic failure in what’s happening now – in the rise of racist rhetoric, the spread of conspiracy theories, the deep mistrust of mainstream institutions – it is happening in societies that are fundamentally different.  The differences matter more than the similarities.


We are living in a world that is much richer, older, more peaceful and more networked than anything that existed fifty years ago, let alone one hundred.  That does not mean our democracies can’t fail: they can, and at some point they almost certainly will.  It may even be happening before our eyes.  But far from following the familiar pattern of military takeover or collapse in the rule of law, it is likely that democracy will fail in the twenty-first century in ways that we are not yet familiar with.  Our democracies will not implode.  But they may simply fade away, hollowed out by forces of technological progress and social division that we lack the power to understand, never mind to resist.


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