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How Democracy Ends

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  484 ratings  ·  54 reviews
How will democracy end? And what will replace it? A preeminent political scientist examines the past, present, and future of an endangered political philosophy

Since the end of World War II, democracy's sweep across the globe seemed inexorable. Yet today, it seems radically imperiled, even in some of the world's most stable democracies. How bad could things get?

Hardcover, 256 pages
Published June 5th 2018 by Basic Books
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Average rating 3.78  · 
Rating details
 ·  484 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
A short but compelling analysis as to why democracy as we know it is pretty much over, though it will continue ambling along in zombie form for the foreseeable future. While you could argue that the book was prompted by Trump, authoritarian populism is only one factor that is making our old democratic norms and systems effectively obsolete. As Yuval Noah Harari has articulated, the rate of technological change is making the idea of traditional participatory democracy effectively impossible. The ...more
Charles J
Aug 29, 2018 rated it liked it
In the past year, several high-profile books have been published that purport to analyze the future of democracy. All are reactions, and not positive reactions, to the election of Donald Trump. All are written by people of the Left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either wrong or bad, although there is certainly a very strong correlation between being Left and being both wrong and bad. As part of my own analysis of a future Reaction, of which the death or massive alteration of so ...more
Jul 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have been reading deeply on this subject since the dismal events of 2016: Brexit and Trump’s election.

Accordingly, there is very little new that Professor Runciman added to my knowledge of the very real and great challenges of our time. However, for someone just beginning to investigate the difficulties democracy is having, or for better understanding the threats posed by such demagogue/strongmen represented by Trump, this would be an excellent place to start.

Runciman w
Jun 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Short, but stimulating. The first three chapters describe possible ways in which democratic regimes can expire: (military) coups, catastrophes (from natural to nuclear) and technological advances. The last, and the most interesting chapter, examines several possible alternatives to democracy, rejecting two (pragmatic authoritarianism and epistocracy) and cautiously endorsing some form of technological accelerationism/adhocracy. Does not spare neither Trump nor blinkered liberalism that has contr ...more
Sep 12, 2018 rated it it was ok
There is some not terrible political analysis and prognostication in this book. The author is a well-read political scientist and a decent writer who has some compelling points to make. My problem is with the core set of assumptions that the author seems to be working from, a few of which are: 1) Western democratic states have up until recently been vibrant, efficacious, or at least adequately meeting the needs of their citizens; 2) history is the story of state actors and state-level actions wi ...more
Pavol Hardos
There is a bit of a cottage industry on the demise of democracy, though the reports of its death still seem greatly exaggerated. This book, however, will not insult the intelligence of the reader, in fact, there is much to be learned and enjoyed here. Runciman is not interested in spinning scary tales. He is trying to make sense of the political situation. He does not bring much new here, but he has plenty of astute observations and makes perceptive connections. I enjoyed this book greatly.
Slow Reader
Nov 13, 2018 rated it did not like it
I will save you the time. You will find nothing that adds value or understanding to your life in this book. In fact, it will needlessly depress you, there is enough of that around without this guy adding to it. It will make you feel helpless in front of large forces shaping the World. Political hope and optimism are rare qualities that shouldn't easily be given up. If that is lost you're are as good as dead. You become a zombie who just goes through life. It's this outlook that Runciman seems to ...more
Sep 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Better than all of the other political science books trying to cash in on Trump, mostly because Runciman is clearly not very interested in Trump himself or even our exact moment. The clarity he brings to complex political philosophy is refreshing, as is his focus on a wider timescale than we usually have these discussions on. The wider thesis of democracy in a mid-life crisis, its best years well behind it but with many more to come, is compelling but of course utterly impossible to prove.
Sep 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book is making me doubt my taste because John Gray calls it 'one of the most luminously intelligent books on politics in many years' , and I love John Gray, but I really could not get on board with this. It just seemed to be a lot of metaphors (e.g. democracy is having it's midlife crisis) without any examples or rigour or ideas .Frankly I was bored, flicking through pages trying to find anything illuminating. It is a book with some quotable ideas, but I don't get the sense that it is the r ...more
Nancy Speisser
This is an excellent book for anyone concerned about the current political situation in the United States. Runciman provides great insight to what is happening, why it is happening, and, hopefully, what can be done to preserve the democracy. With examples of other countries that have lost the right to a democratic government, Runciman tells us what is happening in the U.S. and the implications.
Kevin Tole
When you’ve ploughed through 256 pages of a rather serious book with major implications and which expounds a ‘world-future’ view which might impact civilisation, then pick up a novel and the first paragraph appears to encapsulate the whole of the 'serious' book, you begin to wonder why you bothered. This from J.G. Ballard's Introduction to 'Myths of the Near Future' publi ...more
Yuan Howe Liak
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
Runciman meanders a little at the start-perhaps because the foundations for his arguments had to broad by necessity, but his conclusion (to the extent we could say he has one), was satisfying.
Jul 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up because I've been enjoying the author's "Talking Politics" podcast for a while now, particularly his occasional monologuey keynote-speech-style episodes, and figured the book might have something similar to offer in a more extended form. I wasn't disappointed: Runciman's ponderous yet sharp speaking style comes through in his writing too, and he draws together a fascinating little string of meditations on the circumstances under which states can make the shift from more to less ...more
Todd Martin
Jul 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: culture-politics
Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in tis world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
- Winston Churchill

If you’ve been paying even cursory attention to the news of the last few years (or decades) you’ll likely have come to the conclusion that democracy isn’t working very well.
1. It doesn’t respond
Jun 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Some thoughts recorded in my blog post: "Four books on the strengths and frailties of democracy."
Jan 20, 2019 rated it liked it
It’s a good one, but mostly familiar territory, if you have read other books on the topic. In the end, I preferred the Levitsky-Ziblatt one, although as Runciman says, the two books complement each other.
Alari Rammo
Dec 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
favourite of the year!
The book starts strong, with a chapter dramatically entitled "Coup!", comparing the Greek coup of 21 April 1967 ("the coup succeeded because it was quick, decisive and took its victims by surprise") with a coup in the same city – Athens – in 411 BCE:

"The difference was that ancient Athenian democracy was strong enough to bounce back quickly. Within a year, the oligarchs were gone and the law had been changed to threaten anyone thinking of having another go with instant death."
Jun 03, 2019 rated it liked it
David Runciman, Professor of Political Science at Cambridge University, warns that we are too inclined, in these nervous political times, to fear replays of past eras – the 1930s, say, or the 1967 colonels’ coup in Greece. He characterizes what is happening now as democracy’s ‘mid-life crisis’, comparable to that of a middle-aged man who buys a motorbike: ‘Donald Trump is the motorbike’. It’s less likely to result in total catastrophe than accumulated disappointment, more likely to erode by degr ...more
Aug 12, 2019 rated it liked it
I would not have read this book except that it was chosen by a member of our book group, one who had tea with the author, meeting him as a relative and later finding out he had written this book.

Others in the book group had mistakenly read another book with a similar title, so our one night discussion of democracy ending was well informed. One person in our group mentioned that she pores over the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times every day. Another person said she has given up any
Barry Martin Vass
Feb 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a lively thesis on the advantages and disadvantages of representative democracy in all its forms. David Runciman is a professor of politics at Cambridge University, and he is detailing not just the problems inherent in American democracy, but also democracy in India, Turkey, the UK, the Philippines, Ecuador, Hungary, Poland, Japan and Greece. And it's interesting to know that before Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1933, Germany had been a democracy for twelve ...more
Katheryn Thompson
I chose this one because I listen to the Talking Politics podcast, which Runciman hosts, and I really like that podcast's style and clarity of discussion. I was hoping for something similar from this book, and I got it. Runciman's style of writing is very easy to read and understand, without being patronising; it feels conversational. This does mean that there is some repetition, which can feel a little like rambling, but he never goes off topic and I think this is more a by-product of his writi ...more
Matt Kimsal
Oct 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Was about to give this book two stars until it rescued itself in its last quarter or so. The 2/3 or 3/4 was filled with rambling, divergent ideas, from which I couldn't detect a flow. It wasn't until the last sections when he begins to talk about alternatives to western democracy that things started to make sense. He cites pragmatic authoritarianism (similar to what we see in China), epistocracy (ruling by the learned elite), and liberated technology (a possible grassroots societal backbone enab ...more
Charles Remington
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
How Democracy Ends is a fascination and timely study of the possible circumstances which would deal a death blow to the current democratic systems. David Runciman groups his predictive scenarios into three sections: Coups, in which he examines the various types of military, civil and technocratic takeovers. Catastrophe, which includes nuclear war, pandemics or extreme climate change. And Technological takeover, where the running of government is handed over to machines and artificial intelligenc ...more
Jim Parker
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The title may be misleading, but this is a thought-provoking book which challenges the perceptions both of those who see democracy spiralling down into a 1930s-style fascist dystopia and those who argue it will survive and thrive. Runciman, whose Talking Politics podcast is one of the best informed commentaries on the news now available online, takes the view that western-style democracy is in late middle aged decline. It is poorly placed to solve the big challenges the world now faces - namely ...more
Mike Scialom
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Two months - check my timeline - is a long time for me to read a book. Reasons? One, it's slow to get going: only in the final third did the penny finally drop - democracy isn't going to die, but this is how it ends. Second, it changed me. Or rather it changed the way I think about our world's current travails. Slowly, slowly. Take AI. Runciman says that machines will liberate people from doing mundane jobs, but the price is that "machines will liberate themselves from us". Lots to ponder there. ...more
Robert Narojek
Sep 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Is the end of liberal democracy possible? In the 21st century, support for illiberal politicians is not diminishing. In Europe, they reach for power in many countries. Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Italy ... The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and Brexit convulsions change our perception of old democracies.

The time has come to consider the worst case scenarios. Professor David Runciman from the University of Cambridge does this in a visionary and far from common belief. To
Sep 18, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Too shallow and sweeping. Touches on some interesting ideas, but doesn't really explore any of them. These are similar flaws to those of Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, which I liked -- but this suffers more because it's a book of ideas, rather than of people.
Nov 16, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is basically a long editorial on the topic, written by someone who is passionate about the subject and clearly an expert on the topic, who is writing to a lay-audience. As such, it is interesting to read, but not especially educational or thought-provoking. I never felt the need to take a few minutes to digest what I had just read at the end of a chapter. Furthermore, the information is broad but not deep. I didn't learn anything new when I read it.

I think the book I likely
Adrian Hon
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Surprisingly wide-ranging, unorthodox, and readable study of the problems faced by modern democracies. I expected the historical comparisons, not so much the exploration of existential threats and AI.

Runciman is also very good at writing sentences that concisely summarise entire arguments that might otherwise have taken up pages and pages. I highlighted dozens (sadly in Libby, not Kindle) which shows how tightly-packed his ideas are.
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“Weak democracies are vulnerable to coup d’états because their institutions cannot absorb a frontal assault. Strong democracies are relatively immune to a frontal assault because their institutions are resilient. As a result, the assault on stable democracies comes from the sides. Some of it gets deflected into idle chatter – the constant talk of betrayal, failure and crisis that is the background noise of partisan politics. Some of it gets pushed under the surface and behind the scenes, where only the adults in the room can be sure what really took place, and even they don’t agree. These phenomena feed off each other. Idle talk about the end of democracy is excellent cover for incremental assaults on democracy to hide behind. Meanwhile, the incremental assaults help to feed the talk of failure, without anyone being sure.” 1 likes
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