Political theorist at Cambridge and British journalist David Runciman has offered us some of the most thought-provoking takes on the problems that plague modern politics. Author of The Politics of Good Intentions as well as Political Hypocrisy, his forthcoming book, The Confidence Trap, a history of democracy and crisis, is due out in Fall of next year. Here he discusses the idea of crisis elections: Certainly we faced one in 1932, 1980, and 2008, but are we facing one now? Peggy Noonan thinks so. What has been the historical impact on elected governments during times of crisis, and what makes election 2012 different? Read Runciman’s post here:
Major economic crises make it very difficult for elected governments to hold on to office. During the first four years of the Great Depression, every democracy around the world, from Australia to Austria, from Brazil to Bulgaria, changed government at least once. Many of them gave up on democracy altogether and reverted to some form of military rule. It was a sobering fact, much noted at the time, that when the world’s states gathered in London in June 1933 for the World Economic Conference, only two countries were still being run by the same people who had been in charge when Wall Street crashed in October 1929. They were Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia (and Stalin didn’t even bother to send a delegation to London). It added to the impression that crises suit dictatorships, not democracies.
The global economic crisis of the mid-1970s also proved a very tough time for democratic leaders. They found themselves being forced from office just about everywhere, either though defeat at the ballot box or driven out by scandals. Almost the only one to hold on was Indira Gandhi in India, and she only managed it by using emergency powers to suspend Indian democracy altogether in 1975. When she relented twenty-one months later and finally allowed elections, the voters kicked her out too.
This crisis has been different. Plenty of elected leaders who were in charge when Lehman’s went under nearly four years ago are still there now. Manmohan Singh in India, Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada and Recep Erdogan in Turkey have all been in office for well over the duration. This reflects the widely varying impact of the crisis on different parts of the democratic world. These four countries have all had relatively benign crises and their economies have proved fairly robust. The same is true of Australia, which has changed leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, but only because of an internal party coup; the same party is still in power. In fact, of the members of the G20, ten have had the same government since 2008, and only two of these are straightforwardly undemocratic (China and Saudi Arabia).
The result is that no clear pattern for democracy has emerged in this crisis. In some places, including Southern Europe, democracy has looked very fragile and in Italy and Greece there have been temporary suspensions; elsewhere, democracy has looked strong. The patterns of earlier crises were much clearer. The Great Depression was very bad for democracy and nearly destroyed it. The 1970s, in retrospect, were good for democracy. Countries that were able to change governments found an outlet for popular discontent. Authoritarian regimes that lacked a comparable outlet either fell apart (as in Greece and Portugal) or were forced to suppress the symptoms of the crisis (as in Eastern Europe) with disastrous long-term consequences. The democratic tendency to switch horses in tough times was a weakness in the 1930s. During the 1970s it was a strength.
The lack of a clear pattern this time round makes it hard to know where to place the US election of 2012. Is it even a ‘crisis’ election? The election of 2008, which took place two months after the Lehman’s debacle, definitively was. That was what helped Obama win. He inherited the crisis. In four years he has neither fixed it nor has he allowed it to spin out of control. He has surfed along with it. He doesn’t ‘own’ it, for better or for worse. That means there is still scope for competing narratives to take hold before November. Is it time for a change or time to stay the course? Either line might stick, depending on how well the candidates can deliver it.
But there is also still scope for the crisis to take another turn. This crisis differs from previous ones in being more inconclusive. It simply drags on, unresolved, unfathomable, and littered with false dawns. Though Europe has stabilized for now, it is not hard to imagine another lurch later this year, triggered by a Greek default or a political meltdown in Italy or a bank run in Spain, which takes the crisis to another level, and sweeps away another raft of elected governments, including in Germany and perhaps further afield.
Will the next wave hit before November? Who knows, but at the moment it seems unlikely. Obama has always struck me as a lucky politician. In crisis politics, as in comedy, the key to success is timing.
David Runciman teaches political theory at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy, and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.