Long Read: “Dictator Envy” (Democracy & Its Discontents)

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….

77 replies
  1. 1
    Mike in NC says:

    Dictator envy is a habitual feature of democratic politics.

    More like a habitual feature of GOP members of Congress, who are so smitten by Vladimir Putin, the former KGB operative.

  2. 2
    Mike G says:

    “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator, heh heh heh” — George W. Bush, December 18, 2000

    Imagine the hyperventilating from the rightards if Obama had ever said anything like this.

  3. 3
    Ivan Ivanovich Renko says:

    Interestingly, I see the same thing in Indian politics– it’s GODAWFUL messy, but they do tend to muddle through.

  4. 4
    MomSense says:

    Dictators have the best bully pulpits and we all love those.

  5. 5
    Fuzzy says:

    “Damn, If we didn’t have to fight against everything they want we could just do it our way” is the GOP motto. Oops may need an”our way”.rather than just “not their way”. It takes no brains to say “I object” but some gray matter is needed to say ” I suggest”.

  6. 6
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    Democracy is the worst possible way to run a country. Except for all the others.

  7. 7
    BGinCHI says:

    This article summarizes the entire worldview of Maureen Dowd.

    Wants a dictator daddy but with all the freedoms of a democracy.

  8. 8
    Spaghetti Lee says:

    As usual, The Onion got there first: http://www.theonion.com/articl.....ris,32880/

    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.

    I think it’s more likely that the current crop of Republicans were eager to prove that it wouldn’t survive.

  9. 9
    Chris says:

    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,

    Assumes facts not in evidence.

    certainly not for Chinese state capitalism (anything but that).

    Going off of the Romney campaign just last year, I’d say Chinese state capitalism is exactly what they wish America looked like.

    Although they’re inept enough that by trying to make us like China, they’ll end up making us like Russia instead.

  10. 10
    Redshirt says:

    I like my dictators benevolent.

  11. 11
    Chris says:


    I am the Senate!

  12. 12
    Botsplainer says:



    He added, “Look, maybe the word was inappropriate or maybe I could have used a different word. But you’re talking to somebody who has written, I don’t know, 100 columns in favor of homosexual rights, many columns in favor of same sex marriage.”

    Cohen has been criticized for his comments on race in the past. When asked why he thought it was that he keeps getting caught up in racially charged arguments, he said that it’s because people view him as a liberal and find some of his positions unconventional. “Every once in a while I take an unconventional stance as a liberal — as someone who has always been called a liberal,” he said. “If someone on the right wrote this, no one would care. No one would make a big deal about it but because I veer every once in awhile from orthodoxy, or maybe more than once in awhile, I get plastered this way.”

    Translated: “I love dudebros. Any racism you think you see is outweighed by my love for dudebros,who incidentally form a substantial part of the closeted backbone of wingnut congressional staffs and wingnut think tanks.”

    Andrew “Bell Curve” Sullivan will be along to defend him shortly.

  13. 13
    LanceThruster says:


    Then it’s good that the new breed are corporations, who are not only people, but have the ability to remain virtually immortal (almost like a superhero)!

  14. 14
    Singular says:

    A big grauniad hand-job for American democracy.

  15. 15
    Eric U. says:

    @Mike G: it’s bad enough that GWB was in power for 8 years. Imagine if he was dictator. The Onion “long national nightmare” piece would have been looked at as wishful thinking.

  16. 16
    The Other Chuck says:

    Naturally, you’ll find that the people who most fetishize Tocqueville, such as, oh, naming an institute after him, are the types who have the least use for that actual democracy stuff. I mean if the people actually got together and voted to restrict the activities of corporations or uphold some kind of social contract, that simply Will Not Do. Nope, not The Right Kind Of Democracy.

    But hey, it’s not like it’s a new thing. Quick, how many countries with “Democratic” in their names actually are?

  17. 17
    srv says:

    The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.
    – Alexis de Tocqueville

    Sounds like Rou Paul to me.

  18. 18
    The Other Chuck says:

    @srv: Bribe: 1. (n) Public money spent on public projects approved by a majority that didn’t include me.

  19. 19
    Roger Moore says:


    Sounds like Rou Paul to me.

    It’s under the “Misattributed” section on Wikiquote.

  20. 20
    Chris says:

    @Roger Moore:


    I was about to say “knowing the wingnut record on historical quotes there’s probably a different context there that they didn’t mention.” But, nope. Just old-fashioned making-shit-up.

  21. 21
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    He decided that American democracy was a lot better than it looks.

    I can’t help thinking of Mark Twain who famously said that Wagner’s music is “better than it sounds.”

  22. 22
    srv says:

    @Roger Moore: So it’s not truthy if it’s on a t-shirt

  23. 23
    Woodrowfan says:

    “The only cure for the ills of democracy, is more democracy.” Al Smith. Not always true, but I like the quote….

  24. 24
    Anoniminous says:

    “Scorched earth Republicans” are giving up on democracy because they are losing.

  25. 25
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @efgoldman: Well but he did say it ;)

    I love your comment about Shaw just because I find that there’s this whole category of expressions about which nobody can ever figure out if they came from Shaw or Oscar Wilde. Then it turns out that it was either Disraeli or Fran Lebowitz.

    Speaking of pedantry I found myself thinking that in Roosevelt’s time it would be “the bulliest pulpit” since that’s how he was using the word. I refrained, but just so you know that you’re not the only one.

  26. 26
    RSA says:

    I think Runciman’s observations are related to what I used to hear sometimes about politicians like Jesse Helms: “You have to respect him, because at least you know what he stands for.” It’s an elevation of clarity over everything else, including right and wrong.

  27. 27
    Belafon says:

    @Mike in NC: “Why won’t Obama issue an executive order to end DADT?” Democrats like it, too.

  28. 28
    KG says:

    @efgoldman: every politician who has ever won office, ever?

  29. 29
    handsmile says:

    Pardon the O/T interruption, but Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb, the film that set off dpm’s recent and bloody marvelous “Watch Agains” thread, is being aired on TCM at 9:45pm EST.

    (and glory be! Lynch’s Lost Highway is on the Sundance Channel at 10:00pm; of course the commercial interruptions there will destroy it)

    Now back to the political theory…..btw David Runciman is a major young gunslinger on the subject at Cambridge University. (Heard him last year (?) at Columbia on a panel on political resistance movements.)

  30. 30
    KG says:

    @efgoldman: oh, I know where you were going, I was trying to un-Godwin it. Although, I’d suggest that in democracies (at least modern democracies), a politician must have some clarity of position on at least some issues in order to win. The days of promising a town X on the back of a train and then promising the next town not-X an hour or two later are gone.

  31. 31

    Tom Friedman loves dictatorship, most recently he was praising Singapore.

  32. 32
    Baud says:


    “You have to respect him, because at least you know what he stands for.” It’s an elevation of clarity over everything else, including right and wrong.

    I disagree. That line of argument is used by people who want to justify their support for politicians who have odious views.

  33. 33
    jl says:

    ” The curse of democracy is that we are condemned to want the thing we can’t have. ”

    I don’t know if that is a special curse of democracy. Lots of dictators have been condemned to want things they can’t have: total security, a vicarious BS token of immortality through shaping their society after some insane image of themselves, or… the world. And dictators of have conned or bullied their citizens into wanting the same insane stuff. Napoleon and Hitler wanted the world, and got mass quantities of human beings slaughtered in their attempts.

    Maybe it is a little harder to do that in a democracy, so democracies have fewer edifying but expensive lessons in what not to do?

  34. 34
    fuckwit says:

    I’m not surprised or shocked by dictator envy among Rethugs. it’s their thing. Totalitarianism and capitalism are VERY compatible, in fact they’re ideal for each other, witness Singapore or China.

    What annoys me is dictator-envy among the BULLY PULPIT FDR LEADERSHIP Democrats. No, a “strong leader” who rides in on horseback (shirtless?) and implements all our ponies is not a good thing. Nobody should have that power except us. If we’re not getting ponies, it’s because a majority of the country– even a supermajority– does not want those ponies. It’s so hard to forget that when living in say San Francisco or other bubbles. Most voters lag behind the thinking of the day, and change is very slow in coming. Democracy is a clusterfuck, but if you’ve ever tried anarchy (i.e. Occupy or co-ops other consensus-based orgs) you’ll realize the inefficiencies of democracy are not that bad.

  35. 35
    Pogonip says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I have a globe trotting relative who said he liked Singapore best of the many places he’s lived, but was vague as to why. It never seemed too appealing to me, at least not from travel videos.

    I have a related question. I find 21st-century life rather depressing, at least where I live (U.S.). Does anyone else? If so, or if not, where do you live?

  36. 36
    Hawes says:

    Tom Friedman says Hi.

  37. 37
    Belafon says:

    OT: Next week’s Agents of Shield (on my b-day) is them cleaning up after Thor: The Dark World.

  38. 38
    jl says:

    @fuckwit: Live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you forgot the rainbows, puffy joy clouds and rainbows. And those ponies should be unicorns, thank you very much.

  39. 39
    raven says:

    @Pogonip: Wherever you go, there you are.You should read it.

  40. 40
    catclub says:

    Hey nobody mentioned that Herring is up (barely) over Obenshain in VA Atty Gen’l race!
    Isn’t there some poster whose daughter has a particularly lively interest in this?

  41. 41
    Hawes says:

    “Yes, Mussolini has his faults, but he can LEAD.”

    Ronaldo Fourniero

  42. 42
    jl says:


    ” I find 21st-century life rather depressing, at least where I live (U.S.). Does anyone else? If so, or if not, where do you live? ”

    Unless you want to live like a rich nabob and have people carry you around in a sedan chair, lucky us 21st century people have a choice of all the previous centuries. It shouldn’t be that hard. I mean, I could find some leeches and bleed myself the next time I get the flu, that would be an exciting 18th century staycation.

    Edit: pouring boiling oil into the next bad cut I get is a little too exciting. I’m going to skip the 15th century staycation.

  43. 43
    Mike G says:


    Going off of the Romney campaign just last year, I’d say Chinese state capitalism is exactly what they wish America looked like.

    The Republican Dream is a combination of Chinese state capitalism and apartheid South Africa. They all imagine themselves as the wealthy unfettered factory owners and privileged class even if they’re Joe the Plumber.

  44. 44
    Elie says:

    This is one of the best posts ever.

    Its a great reminder that I will save and reflect upon when I want to scream and impose autocratic rule (mine)

    I deeply want and believe in democracy — I will trade off a fair amount to keep its uncertainties — painful and unsatisfying as they are.

  45. 45
    Chris says:


    Yes, I hate that line of argument too.

    Politicians who, like Ron Paul, honestly say in front of an entire audience that they want people who can’t afford health insurance to just die already, aren’t worthy of respect. Because, well, they’re advocating for the deaths of thousands of people. You know what is worthy of respect? Advocating against the deaths of thousands of people.

  46. 46
    Redshirt says:

    @Mike G: Suicide Nets for all Factory Dorms!

  47. 47
    Elie says:




  48. 48
    Kyle says:


    I have a globe trotting relative who said he liked Singapore best of the many places he’s lived

    Everything works very efficiently, everything is safe, clean and orderly — if you’ve lived in chaotic parts of the world that can be very refreshing.
    It’s really a first world perspective to be bothered by the sterility and over-organization of a place like that and wish for something more freewheeling; from parts of the world enveloped in chaos, trash and corruption, not so much. From a southern Cal perspective there are plenty of people who think Irvine is awesome, while I find it Stepford creepy and bland.

  49. 49
    Poopyman says:

    @Pogonip: I got heat and my shit runs down a hole in a porcelain fixture never to be seen again. I am content.

  50. 50
    Mullah DougJ says:

    Good article. Thanks!

  51. 51
    agrippa says:

    “The man on horseback”

    The savior who will bring discipline and order.

    Been there, done that

  52. 52
    raven says:

    Some great college hoop on.

  53. 53
    magurakurin says:


    I find 21st-century life rather depressing, at least where I live (U.S.).

    as compared to what? 20th century life…The Somme, Ypres, Verdun, Normandy, Stalingrad, Saipan, Okinawa, Dresden, Hiroshima, Chosen Reservoir, Khe-san…at least for war, the 21st century still has a way to go (even as shitty as some places still are in terms of ongoing warfare)

    If the Germans pour through Belgium on their way to Paris next August, I’ll have to change my mind but so far…

    depends on the individual, though seriously. My life in the 21st century is clearly better than the in the 20th, but I also emigrated from the United States. So, it could be way shittier that I remember it. But I lived on Ronald Reagan Ratbait for a while in the 80’s. It was pretty shitty then. I wasn’t really depressed, but then again I was self medicated with big bags of Mexican weed.

  54. 54
    Pogonip says:

    @Poopyman: THAT’S why the 21st century is depressing me–I have spent most of it living in a place where the plumbing has a mind of its own. Didn’t realize it was getting to me that much.

    My all-time favorite residence was in a sleepy little town that woke up once a year to go all out for Halloween.

  55. 55
    the Conster says:


    JSF, resident Thought Leader. If Herring loses by one we know who it was.

  56. 56
    raven says:

    You fuckers know nothing of sewer problems!

  57. 57
    agrippa says:

    The ‘man on horseback’ fails. There is no savior to bring order, discipline and solutions to our ills. Impossible.

    Dictators, simply, do not rule effectively or competently; for a whole host of reasons. Democracy, as ‘messy’ ‘ and ‘inefficient’ as it is, stands the best chance of finding good enough solutions to problems. And, a ‘good enough’ solution is as good as you are going to get. And, there is no guarantee that you will get that.

  58. 58
    Pogonip says:

    @Poopyman: P.S. Is that why you are called Poopyman, your appreciation of modern plumbing? Not enough people appreciate plumbing. In many ways, the story of plumbing is the story of civilization.

    Next time FYWP decides I must have a new name, I too will show my appreciation of plumbing and become Poopynip.

  59. 59
    KG says:

    @Kyle: Irvine is pretty much everything that’s wrong with Southern California

  60. 60
    raven says:

    @efgoldman: They did the same here but stopped in the street and turned into our yard and through the back yard and under the house next door. We got the word last week that, after a six month delay, it will now take a year for them to move it. I guess since they are going to pay for it I shouldn’t be pissed off that their sewer maps were totally wrong but it didn’t matter even though they issued a building permit.

  61. 61
    Chris says:


    I always thought the main value of democracy was that it (most of the time) channeled political conflicts in a way where they’d get resolved via elections and legislative infighting rather than in the streets with revolutions and civil wars.

    Having your government shut down for two weeks by right wing nutjobs throwing a tantrum doesn’t look very glorious. But it beats the hell out of those right wing nutjobs rolling their tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue to seize the government and kill all who oppose them.

  62. 62
    johio says:

    Said American politition Fisher Ames in early 1800’s when only forms of govt were monarchies and few democracies, “Monarchy is like a splendid ship that moves on with all sails set, then hits a rock and sinks forever. Democracy is like a raft, it never sinks, but damn it, your feet are always in the water.”

  63. 63
    someofparts says:

    What a damn fine post. Nothing to add because that nails it.

  64. 64
    mclaren says:

    Tom Friedman, with your incessant love notes to the Chinese dictatorship? We’re lookin’ at you.

  65. 65
    Bubba Dave says:

    I already live under a dictatorship. I have 2 cats.

  66. 66
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Chris: There’s plenty of Democracies that end in street fighting and coups and civil wars. The advantage is supposed to be that the passion of the leader is supposed to be checked by other bodies. That and succession. If the guy in charge doesn’t have offspring, you don’t end up fighting wars all over the place trying to figure out who God’s annointed ruler is.

  67. 67
    johnny aquitard says:

    About sewers and sewerlines: my city, Madison, sent me a letter informing me that the city will no longer make repairs to the sewer line between the main line and the house. They recommended Sewre Line Warranties of America (www.slwofa.com).

    Anybody know anything about them? Are they another republican privatization scheme? Legit?

    In 10 years I had to have the line roto-rootered once for tree roots creating a bolckage. (I paid for it myself, cost about 75 bucks, IIRC).

    Looks like if I want to not worry about paying for major repairs to the line from the house to the street I have to pony up 7 bucks a month for SLWofA ‘warranty’.

  68. 68
    Mike G says:

    @johnny aquitard:

    They recommended Sewer Line Warranties of America

    My rule of thumb with private companies is to avoid anything suffixed with “of America”, more often than not they turn out to be scammers or sleazebags — e.g. Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Financial Corp. of America (ground zero for the S&L failures/bailouts of the 80s). And, of course, Bank of America.

  69. 69
    mclaren says:


    Having your government shut down for two weeks by right wing nutjobs throwing a tantrum doesn’t look very glorious. But it beats the hell out of those right wing nutjobs rolling their tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue to seize the government and kill all who oppose them.

    Wait another eight or twelve years.

  70. 70
    Thymezone says:

    I’ve never seen a problem in American current affairs that could not be solved by simply making me king for a moderate period of time.

  71. 71
    agrippa says:


    Good point.
    I agree.

  72. 72
    Matt McIrvin says:

    The article calls the saying about Mussolini and the trains “hackneyed” but misses a trick by not mentioning that it wasn’t even true.

  73. 73
    Jay C says:


    About the only “news” in the Obenshain-Herring race in VA is that Mark Herring’s slim lead (163 votes out of 2.2 million+ cast) would -IF it holds up as the “final” certified total – will put the onus on Obenshain and the GOP to call for the recount, if any. As it would be on Herring and the Dems if the count were the other way round. Don’t worry: it will probably be weeks, if not months, before this election is resolved.

  74. 74
    sparrow says:

    @Pogonip: Are you asking relative to the 90s or do you mean to your imagined view of long-ago? (Trying to understand). 21st century life in America IS depressing. We’re a consumerist nightmare, most people talk about the weather rather than anything substantive, and the arts are stagnant and dying. It’s hard not to see a society in decline, on the back of the larger problem of destroying the planet for no good reasons.

  75. 75
    Captain C says:

    @Baud: “Say what you will about National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.”

  76. 76
    burritoboy says:

    Uh, that democracy that Tocqueville liked so much?

    It had a gigantic civil war in under thirty years from the time he was writing, one in which roughly 750,000 people died (at least). A large number of the cities in several regions of the country were completely leveled to the ground. Compared to the 19th century monarchies of Europe, this was a horrible performance. The only previous civil war in Europe which compares was the English Civil War, two hundred years earlier (and which one side were the semi-democratic/republican forces).

  77. 77
    fuckwit says:

    @agrippa: It’s called “the SNAFU principle”. By definition, authoritarian hierarchies fail, because information does not travel in power imbalances– people make themselves look good to the boss, so the boss doesn’t know what the fuck is really going on. Therefore the people at the top who have all the power have no fucking idea what is going on, and the peoele at the bottom who know what the fuck is going on have no power. Therefore, ergo, authoritarian institutions will lumber on in a continual state of fail, held together only by inertia and fear, until they crumble catastrophically, or are replaced.

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