The Confidence Trap

In his book, The Confidence Trap, the British political scientist David Runciman (b. 1967) reviews the history of democratic nations and arrives at a startling (yet intuitive) conclusion: they don’t look pretty.

Democracies always seem to be mucking about in a state of uncertainty and confusion. Ask just about any citizen from any democracy, past or present, and they will describe virtually the same scene: government is plagued by scandals, overrun with opportunists, stalemated by rhetoric, and laughably ineffective at making substantial progress. The rare occasions when it all appears to be working are brought to crashing halts by new election terms or unforeseen challenges.

Therefore, you can never look at a democracy and say, “Ok, perfect! We’ve accomplished it!” Democracies never ‘arrive’ or ‘finish’; they cannot achieve a state of completion or prove themselves in a moment of final reckoning. Not only is their leadership always in flux, they are constantly trying to make sense of themselves in an ever-changing geopolitical theatre. One botched, jumbled move after another, democracies just keep trudging through their own debris.

The consequence of all this is that democracies are inherently disillusioning — they are, at any given moment, greatly disappointing.

But the messiness of democratic life is also the secret of its resilience. Even though the day-to-day fracas of political squabbling appears to be a farce, established democracies are incredibly adaptive organisms. They somehow bounce back from crisis and setback with remarkable (and haplessly chaotic) agility.

Runciman argues that the Achilles heel of democracy is the confidence that democracies generate about themselves. Consider: Democracies look like they are in a constant state of crisis, but still they manage to overcome crises as they come. Every time a democracy weathers a crisis, it survives to face another one. Democratic crisis thus becomes an expected and normalized way of life, and with this expectancy comes complacency. In a democracy, complacency is really just a manifestation of confidence: even though politics is a mess, we’re convinced that we’ll make it through anyway. (After all, we’ve made it through everything so far.)

Democracies are a paradox: in the immediate context they usually look like a den of dysfunctional crooks and swindlers, but in the long view of history they just keep puttering right along, weathering one crisis after another.

In other words, democracy seems to breed disinterest in itself: Citizens need to have confidence in democracy if it is to function at all. And the longer a democracy functions, the more confidence citizens have in it. But the more confidence citizens have, the less inclined they are to pay attention to the affairs of their state. This is the confidence trap.

The danger is not that we don’t believe in democracy enough.
The danger is that we believe in it too much.

After all, democratic society hasn’t collapsed yet, so why bother paying attention to it now?

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