How can it work?
David Runciman on American democracy
American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you really do politics like this, with such fractured and chaotic popular input? It seemed unlikely anything so ramshackle could last long. It was also implausible, especially to British eyes, for the simple reason that it was so clearly fraudulent: slavery made a mockery of it. During the second half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was American democracy’s extraordinary capacity for violence. Europe had seen its fair share of wars, but had never seen anything like the Civil War: mutual slaughter on an industrial scale. It got its own version in 1914: a European civil war to rival the American one. At least that’s what it was until the Americans joined, at which point it became a world war. This event inaugurated the next stage of fascination with American democracy: a glimpse of its extraordinary global power and the promise it seemed to offer of a better future. That promise has always run up against its continuing capacity for extreme violence, along with a seeming inability to deliver on its best intentions. Still, the promise has never entirely dissipated. And now we have a mixture of all these views of American democracy: lingering ideas of the promise, a continuing sense of the power, an ongoing preoccupation with the violence, but behind it all a return to the thought that was there at the beginning. It is starting to look implausible again. Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last?
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[*] Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State by William Janeway (Cambridge, 329 pp., £22, October 2012, 978 1 107 03125 8).