With talk of democracy in crisis plentiful, especially in Europe, a smart assessment of how well democracies have fared during past crises is badly needed. This is what David Runciman offers – with decidedly mixed results. Runciman is a good writer and a brave pioneer. Little has been published on the subject and (as I realised when attempting something similar in The Life and Death of Democracy) it’s no easy task to compare large numbers of cases from different time periods and come up with a convincing picture of why democracies succeed or fail.
The picture he sketches is agreeably bold: during the past century, from Woodrow Wilson’s failure to promote democracy after the First World War to the near-collapse of the banking system in 2008, democracies have been littered with confusion, foolish brinkmanship and delayed bounce-back. They’re poor at anticipating crises; they take