DESPITE BEING ONE of the United States’s founding statesmen and its second president after independence from Britain, John Adams was quite skeptical of democracy. “Democracy never lasts long,” Adams reflected in an 1814 letter. “It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
“There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
The United States that existed when Adams wrote the letter was not very worthy of being described as a democracy in any case. Millions of African-Americans held in slavery were denied the most basic human rights, while women were denied any meaningful participation in civic life. Not until the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage in the 20th century could the United States start to be considered a full-fledged democracy, despite the country’s founding under the false flag of democracy in 1776. American democracy, in any meaningful sense of the term, is then less than a century old.
Recent events suggest that, even now, American democracy may be starting to enter a decrepit late-middle age. While many people assume that our current political turbulence is an aberration, long-term trends suggest that undemocratic illiberalism may one day become the norm in the United States and elsewhere. Democracy is eroding and may no longer be a plausible means of governance. Technological change, decaying institutions, and populist demagoguery may well make genuine democracy effectively impossible, validating Adams’s prediction that a democratic system could never really endure.
A new book by Cambridge University professor David Runciman, provocatively titled “How Democracy Ends,” charts a number of trends in the United States and Europe that he believes foretell the approaching end of democracy as we know it.
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