The triumph of liberal democracy in the aftermath of the Cold War has soured with the strains of the Great Recession. The wisdom of allowing the populace a say in national affairs is openly questioned by liberal opinion-makers, as electorates have relished the iconoclasm of outsider candidates or cast protest votes against the status quo. Meanwhile non-accountable bodies—security and intelligence forces, central banks and ratings agencies, media and info-tech oligarchs—have relentlessly extended their powers. Undermined by economic problems, the Western powers have also committed themselves to apparently permanent military intervention in the Middle East in the name of democracy itself, while struggling to manage the refugees fleeing their expanding war zone. Nor has liberal democracy much of a record in handling environmental problems, which have only worsened since its victory. China, the world’s second-largest economy, disdains liberal-democratic institutions altogether. In a longer-run perspective, how should these travails be assessed?

David Runciman would seem well placed to answer that question and his recent work, The Confidence Trap, sets out to do so. Runciman currently heads the Politics and International Studies department at Cambridge and is a regular political commentator for the London Review of Books. Son of the English sociologist W. G. Runciman, he is a pure product of the local establishment: having studied at Eton at the same time as David Cameron, he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he would write a dissertation under the direction of Michael Bentley on sovereignty and pluralism. Published in 1997 as Pluralism and the Personality of the State, this trailed motifs that recur in Runciman’s work. Pluralism tracked back from the anti-sovereignist notions of 1920s English socialists—G. D. H Cole and, especially despised by Runciman, Harold Laski—through a somewhat arbitrary selection of thinkers: J. N. Figgis, Ernest Barker, Frederick Maitland, Otto von Gierke and Thomas Hobbes, the last apparently suggested by Quentin Skinner. Contra Skinner, Runciman appears to argue that groups, unlike natural persons, are equivalent to their representations. He expands Hobbes’s passing mention of theatrical impersonation—at play in the Latin origins of the term persona, as actor or mask—in the course of Leviathan’s discussion of authorized representation, to read the contract between sovereign and subjects as the bond between actor and crowd. If Hobbes’s multitude constituted itself as a commonwealth by authorizing a sovereign’s power, for Runciman the sovereign’s relationship to the commonwealth is ‘unauthorized’, on the grounds that the commonwealth cannot exist prior to its representation. This reading would seem to defeat the entire purpose of Leviathan, which is to justify political authority on the basis of a transfer of right. More pertinently for his later work, Runciman’s aestheticized conception of political representation as theatrical performance notably served to short-circuit any discussion of the relationship between politics and society; indeed Runciman’s main disagreement with Cole and Laski seemed to be that they had some concept of a structured society that lay beyond the state. Delinked from material social interests, Runciman’s notions of representation and performance could just as well apply to sporting heroes as to politicians, as he duly showed in a series of elegant lrb vignettes of Babe Ruth, Lance Armstrong, Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho.

Nearly a decade later, Pluralism was followed by The Politics of Good Intentions (2006), a collection of Runciman’s writings from the lrb on the political behaviour of Blair, Bush and others around the time of the invasion of Iraq. In the introduction, Runciman describes its aim as an attempt to determine what was new about politics after 9.11, viewed in a longer frame. The focus, though, is on politicians’ language and style, rather than strategic goals or decisive acts. The essays have some acid things to say about Blair, Runciman relishing Cheney’s description of him as ‘a preacher in a tank’. But these are qualified by a half-admiring ambivalence. Blair’s seamless transition from ‘speaking Clintonian’ to tight alignment with Bush was effected through a new, double-sided ‘language of risk’ which allowed the uk Prime Minister to have it both ways, as the occasion demanded. Thus, it was important to know the risks posed by global terrorism, yet the risks of global terrorism were never fully knowable; this was not a moment to ignore the balance of risk, but nor was it a moment to weigh risks indefinitely in the balance, and so on. In any case, Blair understood that there would be ‘no gain for progressive politics in working against the interests of the United States, whoever happens to be president’. This pragmatism allowed Blair to straddle the double standards of modern representative politics, which demanded both personal, charismatic authority and impersonal, institutional government—Weber’s moral conviction and responsibility. The ‘genius’ of Blair’s political style was that its self-aware, confessional character forestalled the charge of hypocrisy: ‘How can I be a hypocrite if I know what a hypocrite I appear?’ Runciman does not exactly endorse this: Blair is part of the problem, not the solution. Stylistic questions apart, however, on the substantive politics of the invasion there is not much between them. For Runciman, as for Blair and Bush, ‘it is almost certainly true that it would have done more harm to leave Saddam’s regime in place than to remove it by force’— ‘war with Iraq may ultimately prove to have been justified.’

Writing in the lrb in 2003, Runciman had reacted with distaste to Blair’s two-faced, bomb-and-Bible rhetoric. Returning to the same themes in Political Hypocrisy (2008), he took a more indulgent approach. Again, the concept is tracked back through a seemingly random group of thinkers—Orwell, Bentham, Hobbes, Mandeville, Trollope, Jefferson and Franklin, among others—without much concern for the widely varied contexts in which they were writing. The absence of such powerful thinkers as Machiavelli, Rousseau, Nietzsche or Schmitt is justified on the grounds that they looked at the hypocrisy of liberal politics from the outside, whereas Runciman’s ‘liberal rationalists’ attempted to grasp it from within. And again, the focus is on political style, not substance. Hypocrisy is defined as the construction of a persona that generates a false impression, as in the theatre—hypocrites are actors, who put on masks—and is thus, for Runciman, a key aspect of political representation, and so central to the workings of liberal democracy as such. By contrast, ‘one of the distinguishing marks of fascism’ is that it does not need to be hypocritical—though it’s hard to imagine what could be more hypocritical than the fascist claim to represent an organic unified people, while waging unremitting class war on industrial workers; not to mention the corruption endemic to the higher reaches of those regimes, unforgettably documented by Curzio Malaparte.

Runciman’s lesson, then, is that hypocrisy itself is not the problem. The real danger comes from anti-hypocrites, such as the anti-fascist orator described in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air: seeking to unmask the hypocrisy of contemporary democracy, they are in reality guilty of ‘hypocrisy about hypocrisy itself’. They do not acknowledge that all representative government is based on a ‘mask of power’ that creates a division between a politician’s public and private self. There are two ways to respond to this. Political ‘conjurors’, like Disraeli, Blair or Bill Clinton, appear sincere but are cavalier with the truth. ‘Upright hypocrites’, like Gladstone, Brown or Hillary Clinton, prefer the facts but strike the public as being insincere. Hillary’s public persona is obviously an artificial construct, Runciman argues, a mix of personal ambition and pandering to the electorate, designed to conceal her political weaknesses, such as lack of warmth. But though as a candidate she’s bound to wear a mask, she is sincere about working the current system and wanting power. This makes her less liable to self-deception than Bill, who might be tempted to believe his own propaganda. But rather than taking sides with hypocrites against conjurors, or vice versa, Runciman suggests ‘we’—the first-person plural is ubiquitous—should welcome both types, the Bills and the Hillaries. The choice must be for a system that can accommodate both, as against one that might be intolerant of either.

In several respects, The Confidence Trap represents a break with Runciman’s previous work. Hobbes is replaced by Tocqueville, as presiding spirit of the exercise, and ‘representation’ by ‘democracy’ as its key term. The writing has deteriorated. In contrast to Pluralism’s ‘Cambridgy’ prose, The Confidence Trap proceeds through a series of aphoristic paradoxes, in which each statement reverses itself, like a rocking horse, without ever getting anywhere—‘Democracies succeed because they fail and they fail because they succeed’, for example, or ‘Nietzsche thought democracy was too good to be true. Tocqueville thought it was too true to be good’. These developments are interconnected. Runciman borrowed the central argument of TheConfidence Trap from a paper on Tocqueville by Stephen Holmes, ‘Saved by Danger, Destroyed by Success’. With it, he imported the having-it-both-ways language he once mocked in Blair. Holmes’s text had gleaned a set of truisms from Tocqueville’s Recollections of the 1848 revolution. These stated that success—for example, Louis-Philippe’s long reign—is liable to breed complacency, so one ignores the warning signs of a coming explosion. Likewise, success may undermine political alliances, which are prone to dissolve once the goal has been reached or the common enemy defeated. Danger, on the other hand, may save the day by galvanizing a concerted, forceful response, as the threat posed by the workers’ insurrection of June 1848 unified the property-owning class.

In The Confidence Trap, Runciman borrows Holmes’s easily memorized, ‘destroyed by success, saved by danger’ mantra and applies it over and over again. ‘The ongoing success of democracy creates the conditions for repeated failures, just as its repeated failures are a precondition of its ongoing success’—‘democracies succeed because they fail and they fail because they succeed.’ Democracy always ‘muddles through’ its sequence of crises, but just because it does so, it risks becoming complacent about the next. Runciman’s Tocqueville argues that the things democracies are good at (commerce, comfort) can be bad for democracy, because they breed complacency; the things democracies are bad at (crisis management, wars) may turn out to be good for democracy, because they shake that complacency. Two further features differentiate The Confidence Trap from Runciman’s earlier books. First, the context in which it was written: ‘crisis’ was not an operative category in Political Hypocrisy, but now Runciman sees crises everywhere. Second, instead of selected thinkers, The Confidence Trap examines historical events. Runciman bows to Tony Judt’s Postwar as his model for a general history of the twentieth century, on grounds of both style and content (remarkably, Hobsbawm doesn’t figure at all). With Judt’s help, Runciman distinguishes seven distinct ‘crises for democracy’ between 1918 and 2008 in which to put Tocqueville’s hypotheses to the test. The selection is somewhat singular.