The Confidence Trap

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present

David Runciman
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    The Confidence Trap
    Book Description:

    Why do democracies keep lurching from success to failure? The current financial crisis is just the latest example of how things continue to go wrong, just when it looked like they were going right. In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008.

    A global history with a special focus on the United States,The Confidence Trapexamines how democracy survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis, and from Watergate to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories, from the defeat of German autocracy in 1918 to the defeat of communism in 1989. Throughout, the book pays close attention to the politicians and thinkers who grappled with these crises: from Woodrow Wilson, Nehru, and Adenauer to Fukuyama and Obama.

    The Confidence Trapshows that democracies are good at recovering from emergencies but bad at avoiding them. The lesson democracies tend to learn from their mistakes is that they can survive them--and that no crisis is as bad as it seems. Breeding complacency rather than wisdom, crises lead to the dangerous belief that democracies can muddle through anything--a confidence trap that may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape, if it hasn't already. The most serious challenges confronting democracy today are debt, the war on terror, the rise of China, and climate change. If democracy is to survive them, it must figure out a way to break the confidence trap.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5129-4
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XXVI)
  4. INTRODUCTION Tocqueville: Democracy and Crisis
    (pp. 1-34)

    WHEN THE YOUNG FRENCH ARISTOCRAT ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE arrived in America in May 1831, he was not much impressed by what he found. He had traveled to America with the ostensible aim of writing a book about the country’s prison system, but he also wanted to see for himself what a functioning democracy was really like.

    Tocqueville got off the boat in New York, and as so often with first-time visitors, he felt overwhelmed and disorientated. There was too much going on. No one paused to reflect on what they were doing. No one was in charge. He soon wrote...

  5. CHAPTER 1 1918: False Dawn
    (pp. 35-75)

    ON JUNE 30, 1918, THE EXACT HALFWAY POINT OF THE year, the French writer Édouard Estaunié declared that the struggle for civilization was over. The Great War, which had been dragging on for nearly four years, was lost. The Germans had achieved a decisive breakthrough and advanced to within fifty miles of Paris, near enough to set up an incessant bombardment of the city. Soon Paris would fall, since there was nothing to stop the German army from pressing home its advantage against demoralized opponents. The Germans would find themselves entering a ghost town; already many Parisians had fled and...

  6. CHAPTER 2 1933: Fear Itself
    (pp. 76-110)

    THE YEAR 1933 WAS TRULY GRIM FOR DEMOCRACY. WE know this now, of course, and can sum up the reason why in a single word: Hitler. People who lived through 1933 also thought it was a terrible year for democracy, though for most of them Hitler’s arrival in power was only a small part of it. Events in Germany were more a symptom than the cause of what had gone wrong. The real problem was the failure of the established democracies to stem the tide of history as it appeared to be flowing against them. The democracies had lost control...

  7. CHAPTER 3 1947: Trying Again
    (pp. 111-144)

    NEAR THE END OF 1947 WINSTON CHURCHILL MADE A remark that has since become perhaps the most quoted line about democracy of the twentieth century. On November 11 he told the House of Commons that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”¹ Churchill’s line is now so familiar that it has turned into a cliché, the presiding cliché of democracy in crisis.

    Those who first heard him say it might be forgiven for missing its significance. It came during a debate on the 1947 Parliament Bill, which...

  8. CHAPTER 4 1962: On the Brink
    (pp. 145-183)

    ON DECEMBER 29, IN ITS END OF YEAR REVIEW, THEEconomistsummed up the general feeling of relief. “Asked what it did in 1962,” the newspaper wrote, “the world can reply curtly that it survived.”¹ What it had survived was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, perhaps the most dangerous moment in human history: the Cuban Missile Crisis, which for a few days in late October brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of all-out war. The showdown between the two superpowers over Russian nuclear missile sites in Cuba is often remembered asthe...

  9. CHAPTER 5 1974: Crisis of Confidence
    (pp. 184-224)

    BY THE MID-1970S THE PROBLEMS FOR DEMOCRACY were mounting up: there was trouble from rising prices, from diminishing energy supplies, from stagnant growth, from endless scandals; the problems were felt in the United States, Latin America, in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East; nowhere was immune. A perfect storm appeared to be brewing, which was all the more alarming because no one could be sure when or where it would break. Multiple crises demanded attention, but they also fractured attention, making it hard to fix on a decisive course of action. The year 1974 began with a sense of...

  10. CHAPTER 6 1989: The End of History
    (pp. 225-262)

    IT MIGHT SEEM ODD TO DESCRIBE 1989 AS A CRISIS FOR democracy. Nothing bad happened that year (if you discount what took place in China). A lot of what happened was wonderful, almost miraculous. Nonetheless, a crisis is a point of rupture, the moment when the present asserts itself in the face of the past. What makes it such an unnerving experience to live through is that so much can be at stake with so little warning. Suddenly the future is on the line. The dramatic events that surrounded the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe constituted a genuine...

  11. CHAPTER 7 2008: Back to the Future
    (pp. 263-292)

    THE ECONOMIC CRISIS THAT BROKE WITH FULL FORCE following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 threw up some memorable vignettes of political confusion and panic. President George Bush, faced with the disintegration of the entire banking system, announcing to a room of ashen-faced advisors: “This sucker could go down.”¹ His secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson, going down on one knee before Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to implore her not to scupper his desperately improvised rescue efforts (“Gee Hank,” she responded, “I never knew you were a Catholic”). Republican presidential candidate John McCain suspending his campaign...

  12. EPILOGUE The Confidence Trap
    (pp. 293-326)

    THE HISTORY OF DEMOCRACY AND CRISIS OVER THE last hundred years shows repeated patterns of behavior: misapprehension, confusion, brinkmanship, experimentation, recovery. Democracies are not good at spotting crises before they occur. They ignore the warning signs of impending trouble. At the same time, they overreact to the routine hiccups of political life, which adds to the air of distraction. Scandals grip democracies while systemic failings get overlooked. Democracies lack a sense of perspective. This produces repeated crises as mistakes mount up. But it also enables democracies to escape from crises, because no single mistake is ever conclusive. Democracies continue to...

    (pp. 327-328)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 329-344)
    (pp. 345-368)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 369-382)