The Confidence Trap is a book that, in spite of its many penetrating insights, peripheral as well as central to its thesis, on further examination is less striking and original than it promised to be.
Runciman begins with an introductory chapter about Alexis de Tocqueville’s early contribution to understanding how democratic nations cope with crises and proceeds to apply Tocqueville’s insights, and his own, in a series of chapters examining seven critical events that occurred during the 20th century, which, as he rightly says, was democracy’s first century, the 19th having been fundamentally an aristocratic one. His concern is to demonstrate how crises affect democratic polities, and how democratic polities are in turn reshaped by crises. In Runciman’s judgment, democratic crises are not moments of truth but
moments of deep confusion and uncertainty. Nothing is revealed. The advantages of democracy do not suddenly become clear; they remain jumbled together with the disadvantages. Democracies stumble their way through crises, groping for a way out.
This “capacity to stumble,” Runciman says, gives democratic societies an advantage over autocratic ones, owing to an innate adaptability that autocracies lack. But their adaptive qualities do not give them the further advantage of learning from past mistakes and avoiding...