Sunday, July 14, 2013

American democracy: How can it work?

David Runciman on American Democracy

This is a long talk but gets a thumbs up from me. Runciman strikes me as an epistemologically careful thinker, which is absolutely necessary in his field of political science. The abstract doesn't mention it, but one of the points explored in the talk (for the impatient: near the end) is whether technological optimism is the key to American exceptionality -- is restless, individualistic, capitalistic American innovation as central to our uniqueness as our messy democracy? (Click the banner above to hear the podcast, or go to the LRB page below.)
LRB podcast

American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you really do politics like this, with such fractured and chaotic popular input? It seemed unlikely anything so ramshackle could last long. It was also implausible, especially to British eyes, for the simple reason that it was so clearly fraudulent: slavery made a mockery of it. During the second half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was American democracy’s extraordinary capacity for violence. Europe had seen its fair share of wars, but had never seen anything like the Civil War: mutual slaughter on an industrial scale. It got its own version in 1914: a European civil war to rival the American one. At least that’s what it was until the Americans joined, at which point it became a world war. This event inaugurated the next stage of fascination with American democracy: a glimpse of its extraordinary global power and the promise it seemed to offer of a better future. That promise has always run up against its continuing capacity for extreme violence, along with a seeming inability to deliver on its best intentions. Still, the promise has never entirely dissipated. And now we have a mixture of all these views of American democracy: lingering ideas of the promise, a continuing sense of the power, an ongoing preoccupation with the violence, but behind it all a return to the thought that was there at the beginning. It is starting to look implausible again. Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last?
iTunes: 3/20/13. Bonus: Runciman on Taleb's Antifragile (Guardian review).


georgesdelatour said...

Any inter-state war can be rhetorically described as if it's a civil war between provinces of an imaginary unitary state. The War Of The Triple Alliance (1864-1870), fought between Brazil, Argentina and Uraguay against Paraguay, can, for instance, be rhetorically described as a South American civil war. Ultimately, even World War II can be rhetorically described as a planetary civil war, if you pretend there was an imaginary world state implicit in the background.

The reason this rhetorical strategy is so utterly moronic and empty is, it destroys the chance to find useful information in useful distinctions. Inter-state wars, such as the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the Franco-Prussian War, are fundamentally different from conflicts fought within an actually existing non-imaginary state, such as the American Civil War or many Chinese rebellions, such as the Taiping Rebellion. Charles I vs Cromwell, Jefferson Davis vs Lincoln, and the Qing Dynasty vs Hong Xiuquan are fundamentally different kinds of conflict from Louis XV vs William Pitt.

In the case of the First World War, even if Germany had achieved total victory in both the East and West, this would probably not have resulted in a single European state. The Turks would have kept their European possessions (maybe even expanding their Asian bridgehead into Europe), the Austrians theirs, and the neutrals (the Netherlands, the Nordics and the Iberians) theirs. Germany's extra-European empire in Africa would have expanded, and it might even have taken over French and British colonies in Africa and Asia. All this would have made the principal victor less specifically European in outlook.

Idiotic pseudo-profundity.

(BTW Runciman's perspective is profoundly ignorant of Asia. That's why he thinks American wars were so violent. China's An Shi Rebellion was far more violent than any American conflict. Timur's wars in India and elsewhere were exceptionally violent (maybe 17 million dead). And Genghis Khan's wars probably killed 40 million.)

LondonYoung said...

I agree with georgedelatour's objection to describing WW1 as a European Civil War. In the U.S., North and South spoke the same language, had identical legal systems, and painted their war bonds with the images of the same heroes: Washington, Jefferson and Jackson. Both sides supported nearly identical statements of the constitution - the only difference being the legality of chattel slavery. Before and after the war North and South were one nation.

As for violence, there have been plenty of armed conflicts costing thousands of lives in Europe since WW2 and exactly zero in the United States. Where does the idea come from that the U.S. is violent? Correcting for demographics I don't see the case.

American democracy, I agree, seems strange, but sometimes past performance is indicative of future returns ... maybe?

steve hsu said...

The violence / civil war thing isn't that central to his argument (in fact, technology and innovation are much more important). It's mainly about whether American democracy can continue to work, a topic I suspect you've thought about. He doesn't have a clear answer but states both sides of the argument pretty well.

5371 said...

The death toll of several wars in China has probably been overestimated owing to deficiencies in censuses taken in their aftermath, but I agree with your essential point.

georgesdelatour said...

A fair point.

In earlier times, people weren't so careful with figures and accuracy. The bible is full of people having implausibly long lifespans, for instance. The ages just mean, "trust me, this guy was very old". And some war/battle casualty figures just mean, "this war was really bad".

Plus, the attitude to casualties was almost exactly opposite to today. People wanted to exaggerate the casualties they caused, rather than minimise them. In Timur's autobiography, he boasts of executing 100,000 infidels on a single day in Delhi. He wants the death toll to be as high as possible, because the more people he's killed, the more terrifyingly powerful a leader he must be. Even the worst governments today don't want to do that.

georgesdelatour said...


Even as a discussion of American democracy, I think Runciman is throwing lots of things in the pot, obscuring vital distinctions. So when he mentions "its extraordinary global power", he's implying people thought the US democratic system was itself the root of its power.

In fact, loads of smart commentators of the mid/late 19th century foresaw future US dominance based purely on cold material realities. It was a giant, continent-wide state which commanded two oceans, with huge natural resources, possessing a much larger population than any European state except Russia, and with no menacing neighbours.

Bismarck reportedly said, "the Americans have contrived to be surrounded on two sides by weak neighbours and on two sides by fish". He also said that the most significant event of the 20th century would be "the fact that the North Americans speak English". But the wise old Chancellor, who admired Lincoln, didn't see American institutional democracy as the key to its future predominance.

steve hsu said...

Agreed. If you were really careful you might take it as an uncertain hypothesis that democracy is a big positive US differentiator. As you noted we have many other advantages ...

Larry Darrell said...


Larry Darrell said...

The problem with Runciman is that he thinks of the US as a democracy.

"The US isn't a country. It's a business."

I've subscribed to the LRB for a few years, but I mostly use it to start fires. It's a tabloid for pseudo-intellectuals.

Larry Darrell said...

David Coughlin said...

This is an interesting statement and one I think around: If you were really careful you might take it as an uncertain hypothesis that democracy is a big positive US differentiator.

I should read more history regarding it. It strikes me that until very recently, our Democracy effectively ran open loop. Now the control loop can close very quickly, and it does to our detriment.

Larry Darrell said...

I think perhaps everyone, surprisingly, has missed that the exceptional country of the late 18th and 19th centuries was the UK, not the US.

The Industrial Revolution was a British revolution. Its protagonists were all British and mostly from northern England. The perfect screw, the steam engine, the power loom, mass production of interchangeable parts, etc. were all British inventions.

Larry Darrell said...

"Idiotic pseudo-profundity."

Indeed and typical of the LRB.

a book review in The Guardian of Antifragility by Nassim Nicholas
Taleb, that author referred to Runciman as the "second most stupid
reviewer" of his works, from more than 1,000 reviewers."

is a don and viscount-to-be. Like most toffs he's a poodle for America.
Or if, unlike most Brits you've actually known a poodle, his type is
better described with Don Imus's term, "butt boy".

His father also wrote for the LRB. What shame.

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