In a Frozen Crouch
- How Democracy Ends by David Runciman
Profile, 249 pp, £14.99, May, ISBN 978 1 78125 974 0
- Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth – And How to Fix It by Dambisa Moyo
Little, Brown, 296 pp, £20.00, April, ISBN 978 1 4087 1089 0
- How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Viking, 311 pp, £16.99, January, ISBN 978 0 241 31798 3
- Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy by William Galston
Yale, 158 pp, £25.00, June, ISBN 978 0 300 22892 2
A historian ought to know better, I suppose. But for the last decade – ever since I passed a long queue of anxious depositors outside a branch of Northern Rock in September 2007 – the idea that we might be living through our own version of the 1930s has proved irresistible. The run on Northern Rock augured a financial collapse on the scale of 1929, and has been followed by the re-emergence in the West of protectionist posturing, authoritarian politics, demagoguery and nativism, as well as the bullying land-grabs in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But such anxieties aren’t new. Book titles such as How Democracy Ends and How Democracies Die echo Jean-François Revel’s gloomy Comment les démocraties finissent, published in 1983. Revel, a shrill conservative, thought Western democracy was doomed, its very openness, pluralism and tolerance of criticism rendering it vulnerable to a less scrupulous communist enemy. Everywhere he looked, Revel saw signs of democratic paralysis and impotence: in détente, in the spread of peace movements and anti-nuclear campaigns, in the widespread assumption that to be anti-communist was to be reactionary and an enemy of progress.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 19 · 11 October 2018
Can it really be that the only thing Colin Kidd takes away from the closing line of William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 Democratic Convention speech – ‘You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold’ – is a hint of ‘the bigotry which lay behind his homespun appeal’ (LRB, 13 September)? Is one of the most influential popular movements in American history to be dismissed as just a lot of nativist race-baiting by a rabble cynically roused, Mencken’s old canard about inflamed half-wits? One hopes not. There is today a new left-progressive surge in the Democratic Party that aims to clear out the corporate, centrist cobwebs. And in that respect, its representatives (like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) owe a huge debt to the agrarian movements of the West, the Grangers et al, who brought Bryan onto the convention floor in 1896. As James Morone wrote ten years ago in these pages, the Democratic Party of 1896 was ‘mired in laissez-faire … its politicians served local oligarchs, broke unions and busted strikes’ (LRB, 21 February 2008). Sound familiar? This is why the agrarian movement was so important. In Morone’s words: ‘Bryan and his followers pushed the party in a radically new direction: federal power ought to protect workers, tax wealth and fight inequality.’
And they had to, because economic life in America in the 19th century was eye-wateringly unequal. The Morrill Tariff of 1861, the capstone of sixty years of legislative wrangling over import policy, secured rates of 48 per cent on dutiable goods, a 70 per cent increase on the tariff of 1857. During the thirty years between its passage and Bryan’s speech, farm wages fell by 35 per cent. Much of this had to do with the monopoly power of railroads and grain-buyers, who cartelised agricultural distribution and repelled every attempt by farmers to set up co-operatives that could guarantee stable prices amid droughts and a long-term decline in agricultural profits.
With manufactured goods now considerably more expensive and wages considerably lower, all that was left to paper over the loss of purchasing power was debt, which exploded. And deflation of 2 per cent a year from the 1870s until the beginning of the 20th century meant that the debt, issued on an unregulated and therefore usurious basis, grew heavier at a compounding rate. ‘The Republican Party is unreservedly for sound money,’ said McKinley in his own nomination speech. Unreservedly, and unremittingly. By 1896, the situation was a vice-grip so crushing that farmers had no room to breathe.
What is missing from Kidd’s article, and what so much liberal political scholarship of the last half-century has been at pains to avoid, is capitalism. ‘Democracy’, as he points out, is ‘a shorthand term for a family of political practices’. And one of those practices – arguably the most important of all – is figuring out who gets paid and how much they get away with. The Pew Centre has calculated that since 1964 mean hourly wages (in 2018 dollars) in the US increased from $20.27 to $22.65, or 12 per cent. Almost all that growth has gone to the top 20 per cent of earners. Perhaps we should spend less time tearing our hair out about the sudden disappearance of ‘norms’ and ‘civility’ from American politics and more on who it is that politics has been expressly uncivil to. Decorum, it turns out, might be code for the harmonisation of elite interests; hand in hand, they have led us right back to the foot of the cross.