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The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present Paperback – March 21, 2015
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One of The Guardian’s Readers’ Books of the Year for 2014
"His rich and refreshing book will be of intense interest to anyone puzzled by the near paralysis that seems to afflict democratic government in a number of countries, not least the United States. Runciman's account of the workings of the confidence trap--the belief that democracy will always survive--will serve as an antidote to the moods of alarm and triumph by which writers on democracy are regularly seized."--John Gray, New York Review of Books
"Runciman's book abounds with fresh insights, arresting paradoxes, and new ways of posing old problems. It is part intellectual history, an absorbing study of the modern debate on democracy through the contrasting perspectives of key public intellectuals, such as Walter Lippmann, George F. Kennan, Francis Fukuyama and Friedrich Hayek, and part analysis of the problem of political leadership in democracies, explored through the decisions taken by leaders, particularly US presidents, and the constraints under which they operate."--Andrew Gamble, Times Literary Supplement
"[An] ingenious account of how free nations faced seven international crises from 1918 to 2008. . . . Runciman concludes that democracy will probably survive, having made a delightfully stimulating, if counterintuitive case, that the unnerving tendency of democracies to stumble into crises is matched by their knack for getting out of them."--Publishers Weekly
"[A] historically sensitive and subtle response to the democratic crisis."--Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk, The Nation
"If you think American democracy doesn't work these days, you have to read this well-written book."--Fareed Zakaria, Fareed Zakaria GPS "Book of the Week"
"[B]rilliantly and convincingly delivered. The big story of mature democracies in crisis is told with remarkable confidence and brio. Runciman writes lucidly and compellingly: this is a book that you cannot put down."--Georgios Varouxakis, Standpoint
"As a corrective to the doom-and-gloomsters, this book makes some telling points, and he is a clear and forceful writer. . . . What Runciman's focus on American democracy helps to do is to remind us that there is an international dimension to this subject that is closely connected to American self-perceptions."--Mark Mazower, Financial Times
"Runciman's writing, often brilliantly aphoristic, is full of insights, opinions, and phrasings that will challenge and delight scholars and general readers both."--Robert Nardini, Library Journal (Starred Review)
"Refreshingly free of received and rehearsed wisdoms, Runciman doesn't tiptoe around sacred cows and invites us to take part in that most adult way of thinking: to examine contradictory ideas in tandem and ponder what the dissonance amounts to. . . . [H]e argues lucidly, persuasively, even exhilaratingly at times. The nightly news will never appear exactly the same again."--Miriam Cosic, Australian
"[Runciman] is a trenchant commentator on current affairs and a historian of political thought who, in his books and his articles in the London Review of Books, has revealed himself to be a gifted explainer. . . . [H]e has a canny sense of how political power operates at its highest levels and in his exposition of political theory he is unfailingly clear and direct. Runciman's prose is conversational, if elegantly so--it is no surprise that he is a fluent lecturer--and characterised by a wry restraint."--Daniel Cohen, Los Angeles Review of Books
"[E]xcellent and interesting. . . . [A]dmirable and very well written."--Chris Patten, Tablet
"Runciman is a good writer and brave pioneer. . . . The picture he sketches is agreeably bold."--John Keane, Sydney Morning Herald
"What we get here is good history. The events at the seven junctures are presented in a way that is learned, concise and informative."--Stein Ringen, International Affairs
"Runciman is skilled at bringing important political questions 'out of the clouds' and presenting them in a manner that is clear, engaging, and approachable. . . . This is an extraordinarily well-written and engaging book that asks important questions about structural strengths and weaknesses of democratic governance."--Choice
From the Back Cover
"In this book, David Runciman emerges as the most original guide we have to democracy's global prospects in the twenty-first century."--Melissa Lane, Princeton University
"The Confidence Trap's engrossing analytical history illuminates democracy's deepening achievements and recurring crises during the charged past century. By incisively interpreting these moments of unsettled apprehension and by tracking patterns of coping and surviving, this rich, important book helps us understand, and perhaps even navigate, present anxieties about the capacity of democracies to grapple with the big issues of economics, geopolitics, and the environment."--Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
"Rivetingly written for a wide audience, this is David Runciman's best and most original book to date--bold, clear, astonishingly well informed, and consistently excellent. His ecumenical curiosity is as engaging as it is disarming, pulling you into a history that is effortless to read and leaves you thinking about its insights long after you put it down."--Ian Shapiro, author of The Real World of Democratic Theory
"Imaginative and entirely original. I've not read anything remotely like it."--Alan Ryan, author of On Politics
Top customer reviews
Instead of concentrating on current issues, the author takes a longer and deeper view of democracy. He starts with the French aristocrat de Tocqueville who toured America in 1831 and initially found it chaotic on the surface but later realized it was stable underneath.
The author's main thesis is that the strengths of democracy lie in its flexibility and thus its ability to address challenges. It is a self-correcting system because voters can change governments which can then change policies. This is in contrast to autocracies which are normally committed to an unchanging policy. But this self-correcting mechanism has resulted in democracies muddling through as they lurch from one crisis to another.
The general democratic pattern is crisis, compromised solution, complacency, drift, new crisis, and new compromised solution. This contrasts with the more decisive autocracies. The Soviets for example decided to solve their economic problems once and for all by eliminating all capitalists. The Nazis decided to solve their economic problems once and for all by conquest to obtain more living space. Nevertheless, it is the modern democracies that have survived.
The confidence trap is that while this process has worked so far, there is a belief that the democracies will always muddle through no matter what problems have built up.
Runciman fails to take a longer view of autocracies which have often survived longer than modern democracies. Many regimes have survived three centuries and the first modern democracy has survived only 237 years since its founding in 1776. Ancient Rome for example lasted about 1012 years (509BC to 476AD) and the autocratic Roman Empire lasted 503 of those years. So modern democracies have a long way to go to match those numbers.
It gives you major yet neutral insight into how our world moved on over the last 100 years
Fareed Zakaria advised on a very intelligent writer. Well done David Runciman
The author presents an engaging historical account of democratic crises, focusing on the United States up through the current financial crisis of 2008, and makes the case that like other democracies, we have been good at recovering from crises but bad at avoiding them.
Through his keen analysis of political dysfunction, drift and confusion and uncertainty, he helps to explain how all democracies grapple with the big issues of the time. This is a timely and worthwile read!