Has Dealing with Past Crises made Democracies Over-Confident?



Flirting with Disaster - Review of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present
Journal of Democracy
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Summary of book review:

Marc Plattner reviews David Runciman's book on how democracies have handled crises over the last century – The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Cambridge University, 2014).

The book analyses the challenges facing democracies and how they responded to them in seven critical years – 1918 (the end of WWI), 1933 (the Great Depression), 1947 (the onset of the Cold War), 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis), 1974 (Watergate scandal), 1989 (the collapse of the Soviet Union) and 2008 (the Global Financial Crisis).

Runciman notes that democracies 'exists in a semipermanent state of crisis', but they have a long record of adapting and 'muddling-through' them. He does not attribute this success to an inherent capacity to learn and grow from each challenge. Instead, he credits the institutional safeguards of democracy – frequent and fair elections, a free media, separation of powers – that enable democratic countries to be more flexible and adaptable than autocratic ones.

This continued success in overcoming crises may have given rise to the 'confidence trap' of the book's title. He argues that democracies have a tendency to let long-term problems build up as they are 'comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them'. He is concerned that one day, democracies may lose one of these 'games of chicken'.

Thumbnail image: courtesy of Princeton University Press.

Marc Plattner

National Endowment for Democracy

Published Date
October 1, 2014