David Runciman, in the Guardian:
… Dictator envy is a habitual feature of democratic politics. We don’t actually want to live under a dictatorship – we still have a horror of what that would entail – but we do envy dictators their ability to act decisively in a crisis…
The irony of dictator envy is that it goes against the historical evidence. Over the last 100 years, democracies have shown that they are better than dictatorships at dealing with the most serious crises that any political system has to face. Democracies win wars. They survive economic disasters. They adapt to meet environmental challenges. Precisely because they are able to act decisively without having to square public opinion first, dictators are the ones who end up making the catastrophic mistakes. When dictators get things wrong, they can take the whole state over the cliff with them. When democratic leaders get things wrong, we kick them out before they can do terminal damage.
Yet that is little consolation in the middle of a crisis. The reason we keep succumbing to dictator envy is that it requires steady nerves to take the long view when things are going wrong. The qualities that give democracies the advantage in the long run – their restlessness and impatience with failure – are the same qualities that make it hard for them to take the long view. They look with envy on political systems that can seize the moment. Democracies are very bad at seizing the moment. Their survival technique is muddling through. The curse of democracy is that we are condemned to want the thing we can’t have.
The person who first noticed this deeply conflicted character of democratic life was a French aristocrat. When he travelled to the US to study its prisons in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville shared the common 19th-century prejudice against democracy. He thought it was a chaotic and stupid system of government. By the time he finished his journey a year later, he had changed his mind. He decided that American democracy was a lot better than it looks. On the surface, everything appeared a mess: bickering politicians, vituperative and ill-informed newspapers (“The job of the journalist in America”, Tocqueville wrote, “is to attack coarsely, without preparation and without art, to set aside principles in order to grab men”), distracted citizens. No one was able to exert a grip. There was far too much noise, not enough signal. But over time this surfeit of noise produced an adaptable politics that never sat still for long enough to get stuck. The raucousness of American politics was a sign of its essential health. Americans kept stumbling into holes and then back out of them. More mistakes are made in a democracy, Tocqueville wrote, but more mistakes are corrected as well. More fires get started by Americans. More fires get put out by them too.
Tocqueville’s genius was to spot the likely psychological effects of living with such a system. It could go one of two ways. Many people would be made highly irritable by the constant inability of democratic politics to get its act together. Tocqueville called democracy an “untimely” form of government because it never seemed to rise to the occasion. When things look really bad, democratic politicians are often to be found bickering over inessentials. Yet when the crisis has passed, these same politicians turn out to have found a way to pull through. It is all very undignified. As a result, Tocqueville suspected that democratic citizens would always have a soft spot for kings and tyrants, who at least knew how to put on a show. Democracies dream of rescue by the politician who can bang a few heads together. When that politician fails to show up, their frustrations will bubble over. Anger and disgust are never far from the surface of democratic life.
However, the other likely psychological consequence of democratic untimeliness is complacency. If it is true that democracy is not as bad as it seems, then it is tempting to imagine that no crisis is ever as serious as it looks. Things will be all right in the end, so long as we don’t overreact. Tocqueville spotted that American democracy was founded on faith: people had to believe such a messy system would see them right in the end. The danger was that their faith in democracy would blind them to the stupid mistakes their politicians were making. Some crises, even for Americans, really are as bad as they seem.
Tocqueville’s analysis is the best guide to the workings of modern democracy throughout its history, right up to the last few weeks. The democratic mindset is to be despairing and blithely confident all at the same time. Just look at the behaviour of America’s current crop of political desperadoes. Surely you would only shut down the government if you thought that the system was working so badly that it is almost beyond repair. Desperate times require desperate measures. On the other hand, it is also true that you would only shut down the government if you thought the system worked well enough to survive whatever you could throw at it. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Scorched-earth Republicans have effectively given up on American democracy at the same time as having unlimited faith in it. They don’t want to ditch it, certainly not for Chinese state capitalism (anything but that). But nor can they bear to put up any longer with its messy compromises. Furious impatience and shoulder-shrugging fatalism are the twin vices of democratic life. The same politicians display them simultaneously….