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American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you really do politics like this, with such fractured and chaotic popular input? It seemed unlikely anything so ramshackle could last long. It was also implausible, especially to British eyes, for the simple reason that it was so clearly fraudulent: slavery made a mockery of it. During the second half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was American democracy’s extraordinary capacity for violence. Europe had seen its fair share of wars, but had never seen anything like the Civil War: mutual slaughter on an industrial scale. It got its own version in 1914: a European civil war to rival the American one. At least that’s what it was until the Americans joined, at which point it became a world war. This event inaugurated the next stage of fascination with American democracy: a glimpse of its extraordinary global power and the promise it seemed to offer of a better future. That promise has always run up against its continuing capacity for extreme violence, along with a seeming inability to deliver on its best intentions. Still, the promise has never entirely dissipated. And now we have a mixture of all these views of American democracy: lingering ideas of the promise, a continuing sense of the power, an ongoing preoccupation with the violence, but behind it all a return to the thought that was there at the beginning. It is starting to look implausible again. Can you really do politics like this and expect it to last?

The immediate objection to any story about two hundred years of American democracy is that it’s changed so much that we’re not talking about the same thing anymore. A democracy with slavery is different from one that abolishes it; a democracy that denies the vote to women can’t be compared to one that grants it; a democracy of 13 states is nothing like one with fifty. Despite these changes, it’s the features that have remained constant which stand out. The most celebrated is the constitution, a uniquely durable – or to put it another way, a remarkably entrenched – document. But I’d like to offer another example, something more prosaic perhaps and easier to overlook, but evidence nonetheless of just how different American democracy is from all the other kinds that have been tried.

In 1845 Congress legislated to require voting for president (that is, voting for the electoral college that would select the president) to take place on a specified day every four years, and always on that same day. The day that was chosen – for boring technical reasons – was the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Until that point, states had been free to set their own timetables, which meant the process could be drawn out for up to a month, adding to the feeling of chaos surrounding American democracy. Creating a single election day was an attempt to impose some order, but it just added to the air of implausibility. You can’t fix things like this in perpetuity. After all, how could anyone know whether the Tuesday after the first Monday in November would always be a good time to be choosing a new government? What if there was a war on? Or the country was in the grip of an economic crisis? Or some natural disaster intervened? Surely there had to be flexibility in extremis. Other democracies are careful not to hold national elections when things look really dicey or if it seems especially impractical (in Britain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth was enough to put us off in 2001). But since that decision in 1845, US election day has never budged, not by so much as a day, though there have been wars on, and worse, a civil war, and though it has often been both dicey and impractical. The election took place as scheduled on 8 November 1864, even though during the summer Lincoln had feared he might lose it (whether it would have taken place if he had still feared he might lose in November is another question). The election took place as scheduled on 7 November 1944 (in Britain electoral democracy was effectively suspended for the duration of the Second World War, as it had been during the First). In 2008, the presidential election was scheduled to take place just seven weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which precipitated perhaps the most dangerous financial crisis in the history of the republic (as George W. Bush said of his country’s economy at the time, ‘This sucker could go down’). The memoirs of Bush’s secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulson, make clear his utter terror at what the forthcoming election might do to his rescue plans if either candidate chose to pander to popular loathing of bankers’ bail-outs (luckily for him, Obama didn’t need to and McCain couldn’t work out how). But Paulson never seriously thought of a postponement, and nor apparently did anyone else.

In the 1890s Congress decided to extend the provision for election day to cover the congressional mid-terms as well, so now there was a fixed date every two years. Again, it has never been moved, not even in 1942, an exceptionally dangerous year. The closest the US government has come to authorising a postponement was in the spring before the mid-terms of 1918, when contingency plans were drawn up in case the November elections needed to be cancelled. America had joined the Great War a year earlier and now American troops were arriving in Europe to discover the war was being lost: the British and French armies were in retreat and conventional wisdom said Paris would fall in the summer. The war was expected to drag on at least into 1919, probably into 1920, by which time the weight of American resources might start to tell. Come November the country seemed likely to be engaged in an unprecedented mass mobilisation, which meant an election might not be appropriate. But then, in the late summer, the German army fell apart, and the mid-terms were back on. By sticking to the prescribed date – 5 November – the course of history was altered. A delay of just a week would have seen the elections take place on 12 November, the day after Armistice Day. As it was, with America, uniquely among the combatants, still holding elections in wartime, Woodrow Wilson took the opportunity to ask the American people to express through the ballot box their views about the sort of peace they wanted. If they wanted his peace – the League of Nations and all the trimmings – they had to say so by voting for the Democrats to maintain control of Congress. The Republicans, meanwhile, hammered Wilson throughout October for talking peace while Americans were still fighting and dying. The president was stymied. The Democrats lost the election, gravely weakening his negotiating position in Paris and his chances of getting his desired peace through Congress. As one of his campaign managers noted in a memo after the votes had been counted: ‘The Republican slogans “Unconditional Surrender” and “No Negotiated Peace” proved surprisingly effective.’ The surprise is that anyone should have been surprised.

Since then, come hell or high water, election day has been sacrosanct. Last year it was literally come high water. Superstorm Sandy arrived a week before the vote, a natural disaster that may have helped rescue Obama politically by reminding people on the East Coast that a federal government is sometimes a useful thing to have. The advent of postal voting means that the day itself is not quite as special as it once was, but it remains the focus of campaigning, and the nexus of all media coverage. It’s when the horse race ends. And no mere act of God is going to move the finish line.

This is a system of politics that has held its ground under all manner of unpropitious conditions. It has been stress-tested almost to death. So does it work? You’d think we would know by now. But we don’t know. In a recent essay in the LRB (3 January), John Lanchester said the simplest summary of the state of knowledge in macroeconomics is ‘nobody knows anything.’ The same is true of macro-politics. In micro-politics, as in microeconomics, we are drowning in knowledge. The minutiae of the inner workings of American democracy are better understood than they have ever been, not least because many thousands of academics make a decent living studying them. But on the big question of whether it really makes sense to keep doing politics like this we don’t know. This is not because no one can answer the question of whether it works. It’s because there are two obvious answers to that question, and they can’t both be right.

The first answer is: yes, of course it works. Just look at it. It has survived everything that’s been thrown at it for more than two hundred years. During that time the United States has got exponentially richer and more powerful, to become the richest and most powerful nation in history. This is, by far, the most successful system of government the world has ever seen, certainly as judged by those measures (there are others, but these two are hard to argue with). There are some states that have become wealthier – Norwegians are significantly richer per head of population – but nowhere has come close to combining so much wealth with so much power.

The other obvious answer is: no, of course it doesn’t work. Just look at it. Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional’. The country is massively in debt, and its elected politicians can’t decide what to do about it. American party politics is toxic and partisan in a way that seems to satisfy nobody (even the partisans tend to hate the extreme partisanship). Attempts to ameliorate the squabbling by setting artificial deadlines – the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff, the sequester – designed to focus the minds of both parties have just made the partisanship worse, by encouraging each side to play chicken with the system. The politicians no longer trust one another. The public no longer trust the politicians. Confidence in the institutions of American democracy is at an all-time low. This applies both to the most democratic part of the constitution – Congress (whose approval ratings are in the toilet) – and the least democratic part: the Supreme Court (whose approval ratings are also at or near historic lows). The presidency is currently the most popular branch of the federal government, which, given how many people hate Obama, is saying something. Over the past decade, the country has been getting markedly less powerful and less prosperous. It has been fighting stupid wars – in Iraq, in Afghanistan – that it neither knows how to win nor how to exit satisfactorily. Wealth creation is sputtering to a halt and wages have been stagnating, especially for the middle class. Only a tiny minority (the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent) has prospered significantly during this time, something the majority has been seemingly powerless to do anything about. A democracy in which the majority is powerless in the face of this sort of rampant inequality looks fundamentally fraudulent.

Since both answers can’t be right, the temptation is to assume that one must trump the other. There are good reasons for thinking yes beats no, because the success story is a long one, and the recent failures are just that – recent. Set against a good two hundred years, a bad ten years might just be a blip. No one said the progress of American democracy was meant to be smooth. It has always been cyclical, from highs to lows and back again, and the next upturn may be starting. The economy is stabilising, unemployment is slowly coming down and the Dow is once again knocking on the door of its historic highs. Obama got through his first term – just – and now has a chance to try again. There are tentative signs of small political readjustments in the face of this new reality, as Republicans start to think about recapturing their reputation for being able to govern.

But there are good reasons for arguing the other way. A moderately stable six months may just be a blip against a terrible ten years. There is still plenty of scope for any recovery to run into the sand, and for partisan intransigence to wreck it. Equally, peering from the other end of the telescope, two hundred years is not such a long time: ancient Athenian democracy lasted about that long, and then look what happened. The significant fact about the last ten years is that they come at the end of the story. If American democracy is going to go into decline, there will have to be a bad ten years from which it does not recover. So this might be what decline looks like. The past is not necessarily a reliable guide to any system’s powers of recovery, since nothing lasts for ever. At some point, past successes become part of the problem rather than the solution, by providing false consolation and grounds for complacency.

The good news story and the bad news story can offer equally plausible accounts of the same event. Take Obama’s re-election. It isn’t hard to weave it into a recovery narrative. Come election day, the American people decided to give him more time, and the system a further opportunity to correct itself from the partisan excesses of the past few years. Some of the rancour may now begin to dissipate. The raw data, though, tell another story. Buried beneath the bare fact of his victory is evidence of a brutally divided nation, as divided as it has been at any point in its recent history. Among white voters, who still account for 72 per cent of the total, Romney won the popular vote by a margin of 59 per cent to 39 per cent, a Reaganesque landslide. Men voted in large numbers for Romney; women in even larger numbers for Obama (more women actually bothered to vote, which helps explain why Obama won relatively comfortably). Obama had huge majorities among ethnic minorities, young people, single people, gay people. Old people, married people, people with children voted for Romney. On the upbeat account, this is all fine. Obama won among the demographics that are growing; Romney among the demographics that are shrinking. The progressive majority that Obama managed to forge out of this constellation of minorities will become stronger over time. The Republicans will have to adapt to compete. But any sunny story has to cope with another brute fact about the 2012 elections, which is that the Democrats also won the popular vote for the House of Representatives, on a swing of more than 6 per cent from 2010, yet almost no seats changed hands, leaving the Republicans with a solid majority and America with a divided government. This was made possible by the redistricting undertaken by Republican state legislatures since 2010, creating new constituency boundaries that have the effect of piling up Democratic votes in urban enclaves, while preserving Republican majorities. The state legislatures are, of course, democratically elected, so this is not simply a power-grab: it is a popularly endorsed power-grab. These are among the ways in which American democracy eats itself. Some realignments serve to entrench partisanship instead of dissipating it.

The other problem is that if Obama’s progressive majority is to keep growing, the country needs to keep progressing. It would be wishful to assume that angry white men (especially the ones who are so angry they can’t be bothered to vote) can be neutralised by all those other people with less reason to feel embittered, and more reason to want to vote. After all, it’s not only white men who get angry, and bitterness can spread. If the recovery stalls, if the political system continues to malfunction, if the decline is real, then all bets are off. No one can know what the voting patterns will look like under those circumstances, because no one knows what those circumstances will mean. Relying on the cyclical powers of recovery and realignment contained within American democracy means taking a view about the cycles that are really at work. And, as always, there is more than one view.

Two very different books published within a year of each other in the mid-1980s give a sense of the uncertainty. Despite their differences, both seem prescient today. One is The Cycles of American History by Arthur Schlesinger, which came out in 1986. Schlesinger, who had been court historian at Camelot and was a lifelong New Dealer, saw American politics as moving through generational shifts from a passive to an active mode, or from what he called destiny politics to experimental realism. When destiny had America in its grip, people fell back on the foundational myths of individualism, independence and freedom from government interference. Then, when that politics of faith ran into trouble (as it inevitably had to), people turned back to the government: 1986, the height of the Reagan revolution, looked to Schlesinger like the trough of one such cycle of excessive faith in free-market individualism, which would switch back in due course to something more statist. Obama’s second inaugural address, delivered in January, was effectively channelling Schlesinger. Obama acknowledged the pull of the myths of American independence, but he also pointed up their inevitable limits. ‘When times change, so must we,’ he announced. ‘Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.’ American politics has a tendency to indulge in unsustainable bouts of wishful thinking about free markets and to promote excessive mistrust in government. Then, after a decade or two, the people wake up, and the ship of state slowly rights itself.

The British historian Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published in 1987, offers a very different view. This is not the story of twenty to thirty-year cycles of intervention and laissez-faire, but of two to three hundred-year cycles of imperial ascendancy and decline. Rising powers eventually overextend themselves. They take on military and domestic commitments that they lack the resources to meet. They are insufficiently adaptable and can’t make the necessary sacrifices. So it all unravels in the end. Why should America be any different? In 1988 Kennedy’s prognosis of doom became a talking point in the election campaign between Bush senior and Dukakis (Bush used Kennedy’s book as another stick to beat the doomy Dukakis with, knowing full well that optimism wins elections). In the 1990s it became routine to laugh at Kennedy – here was another whiny Brit who bet against America and lost, as people who bet against America always do. Kennedy had thought that the regular budget deficits during the Reagan years of more than 5 per cent were sure evidence of impending ruin; then Clinton balanced the budget. But Kennedy doesn’t look so foolish now. These days, after the excesses of the last ten years, a budget deficit of 5 per cent is held up as a badge of probity, and can be achieved only through significant cuts to the military. This certainly looks like an overextended empire.

One of the few things that Schlesinger’s and Kennedy’s books have in common is that they each refer to the prophetic skills of the greatest of all writers about American democracy, Tocqueville. Both men thought he saw what was coming before anyone else. Kennedy quotes Tocqueville’s prediction at the end of volume one of Democracy in America that the next century would see a world divided between two competing empires: America and Russia. Each would offer a rival conception of what democratic equality must entail, and each would be trapped in its own sense of destiny. Kennedy believed that the decline of the Soviet Union did not herald the triumph of the American model; instead it was an early indicator of the fate that awaited America too. (He thought the rising power best suited to claim the glittering prizes of the 21st century was Japan, which shows he was no prophet; but if you replace Japan with China in his account, it still works.) Schlesinger heralded Tocqueville as the man who foresaw the endless back and forth of American democracy, from active to passive, from progressive to complacent, from volume one of Democracy in America (with its anxieties about the tyranny of the restless majority) to volume two (with its fears about the mild despotism of comfortable public opinion). Schlesinger’s Tocqueville understood the rhythms of a democratic people: they hope to do without government, until they grow impatient with the inability of government to help them. Kennedy’s Tocqueville understood the deeper rhythms of geopolitics: how peoples rise and how they fall.

I think they are both wrong. Tocqueville wasn’t a prophet – there are no prophets, least of all in politics. Instead, Tocqueville stumbled across a simple truth that helps explain the difficulty of knowing how much trouble American democracy is in. His fundamental insight comes from the first-hand experiences he gained travelling in America as a young man in 1831 (the journey that formed the basis of Democracy in America). Tocqueville was an aristocrat and a bit of a snob. He shared the common European prejudice that American democracy was an implausible project – hence his desire to see it for himself. He got off the boat in New York, and like many first-time visitors was overwhelmed by what he found. His first impression was that it was a mess: stupid, chaotic, haphazard, impatient, relentless. He didn’t see how it could possibly work. But after he had been in the country for a while and travelled outside New York, he decided that American democracy was not nearly as bad as it looked. It does work, despite appearances. It has an underlying stability and adaptability that is not visible on the surface of events. Tocqueville concluded that American democracy has something curiously opaque about it: the underlying story never quite reaches the surface in time for anyone to recognise what’s going on. That’s why democracy requires faith: not just religious faith (though Americans have plenty of that), but also faith in democracy, a confidence born of the belief that things are never as bad as they appear. Tocqueville said of American democracy that more goes wrong, but more gets done as well, which means nothing bad lasts for long. Or as he put it elsewhere: more fires get started, but more fires get put out.

Don’t all regimes rest on this sort of faith? Tocqueville said not. He spotted the irony that it’s the openness of democracy that produces the opacity, because the excess of surface activity makes it hard to know what’s really going on. Authoritarian regimes, which run on secrecy, are not difficult to read: their secrecy is visible for all to see. The rulers of present-day China or Russia try to hide a lot about their activities, but you’d have to be very blinkered not to notice how much is being hidden. American democracy, by contrast, is mysterious because it is never clear just how much is being hidden (this is one reason conspiracy theories continue to flourish there). In a vibrant democracy the dissent, the noise, the anger, the incompetence are all readily apparent, yet out of this, over time, come stability and progress. It is hard to fathom. There is nothing cyclical about it. The active and the passive co-exist at every moment, frenetic activity going along with blind faith.

The problem is knowing how much to take on trust at those moments when things really do seem to be going badly. The opacity of democratic life makes it tempting to think the most important thing is not to overreact. If you lose faith during the rocky times, there is a risk you will stifle the restless adaptability that enables the system to correct itself over time. But of course there is also the risk that this time things really are as bad as they look – that something has gone fundamentally wrong – and if you keep waiting, you will end up standing by as the ship goes down. This is the dilemma facing American democracy now: how can anyone know how bad things are, given that they are rarely as bad as they seem?

At present the most acute version of this dilemma is genuinely subterranean: it’s the story of America’s relentless search for a reliable energy supply. During the energy crises of the 1970s, US presidents regularly announced that the salvation of American democracy lay with energy independence. The reliance on overseas oil was storing up long-term problems, both environmental and political: the world was running out of oil, and the regimes supplying the oil were running out of patience with the US. The same message was delivered in televised addresses by two ostensibly very different presidents, Nixon and Carter. Nixon said it in 1973, when he told the American people that the oil crisis posed a fundamental threat to the survival of their democracy. To meet that challenge, two things were needed. First, government support for new technologies designed to find untapped sources of domestic energy; second, restraint on the part of the public, including significant cuts in fuel consumption. Nixon framed the crisis as a moment of political choice: a chance for American democracy to regain control over its destiny. Carter said more or less the same thing in 1979 in his notorious ‘malaise’ speech, when he told Americans that they were facing a ‘crisis of confidence’ (he never actually used the word ‘malaise’, but it suited his enemies to imply that he did, since it sounds liberal, wimpish and vaguely foreign, just as Callaghan never said ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ in the same year, though it suited his enemies to suggest that he had). The essence of the problem for Carter was American dependency on imported oil. The moment had come to break that dependency, and for American democracy to pull itself together. Again, like Nixon, Carter was blunt about the implications. ‘There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice,’ he warned. This meant import quotas, rationing, but also the use of taxpayers’ money to invest in new shale gas technologies. America had to choose restraint in order to keep progressing.

Did America choose to make the necessary sacrifices? Of course not. Dependency on overseas oil went down for a while thanks to measures Carter put in place, but it soon rose again, well past the limits he had set. By the first decade of this century, during the presidency of George W. Bush, it was rampant. No politician has seemed capable of making the case for regulation and restraint – and higher taxes – on that scale; at least no one who has also known how to get elected. Yet now, thanks to the rapid expansion of fracking technologies, which are delivering vast new supplies of shale gas and ‘tight’ oil, America is on the brink of realising the dream of energy independence after all. The US is on course to become a net exporter of energy by 2017. By 2030 it is likely to be in the position of its erstwhile suppliers, with sufficient net resources to be able to pick and choose where it sells them. Cheerleaders for the shale-gas revolution point to this as the explanation for the nascent recovery: it’s not the Obama stimulus, or the bail-outs, or the Fed’s loose-money policies that are rescuing America’s economic fortunes; it’s fracking, leading to cheap fuel. So it turns out the sacrifices weren’t needed. The forces of restless technological innovation – on the cheerleaders’ account credited to the workings of the market, not the state – have done the trick. In fact, it was state investment in hydraulic fracturing in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for the current boom. This is something that champions of the free market invariably ignore: far-reaching technological change is almost always a consequence of massive public investment at the outset, often fuelled by the imperatives of a national political crisis. As William Janeway argues in an important new book, technological revolutions depend on ostensibly wasteful government spending to do the heavy lifting at the beginning; the market won’t take the risks.* Only later will the private sector step in to compete for the spoils, producing the inevitable bubbles but also the marketable products. It happened with the IT revolution, which was kick-started by vast government spending on military R&D during the Cold War, and it’s happened with fracking, thanks to the heightened security fears set in train by the oil crisis of the 1970s. Crises induce governments to throw money at the wall in the hope something will stick. But when products finally reach the market, often a generation or more later, the role of government is forgotten. Salvation is not put down to political desperation but to entrepreneurial ingenuity.

This myopia feeds the story that is often told against environmental scaremongering. Critics like to point out that fears of ‘peak’ this, ‘peak’ that – oil, food, water, population – tend themselves to peak at just the point when technological innovation is about to render them obsolete. ‘Don’t panic’ is the message; just keep the faith in a free society and an open economy to deliver when it’s needed. There are two stories in particular that environmental debunkers love to tell. One comes from 1860s Britain, when all sorts of intelligent people, including William Gladstone and John Stuart Mill, were worried that the country was about to run out of coal, meaning a new age of austerity was at hand. But of course ‘peak’ coal was nonsense; the truth is that the country was only just starting to dig for it properly, thanks to new technologies; until that point we had merely been scratching the surface. The other story comes from 1890s New York, when the city seemed in danger of drowning under a tide of horseshit. Rapid expansion, coupled with increasing dependence on actual horsepower to move goods, meant that there were too many animals in a restricted space. At predicted rates of growth the city would be buried in manure by the middle of the 20th century. And then someone invented the motor car: the mess disappeared as if by magic. Now fracking stands to oil as oil once stood to horseshit. Salvation comes when you need it, if you have the nerve to wait. It’s the American way.

Tocqueville ran up against this mindset on his travels, and it both thrilled and unnerved him. It was the age of the steamboat, and he was often alarmed by how rickety these vessels seemed. One that he was travelling on hit a sandbank on the Ohio River and he nearly drowned. Afterwards he sought out some steamboat manufacturers to ask them why they didn’t make their crafts more reliable. They told him that technological innovation in America happened so fast that there was no point; by the time they had made the necessary changes the boats would be obsolete anyway. Better just to take a chance on what you had, safe in the knowledge that something better was around the corner. This is how recklessness combines with passivity; experimentalism with faith.

There are three things to say about the idea that fracking will be the salvation of American democracy (leaving aside the current arguments about the potential ecological risks, including to the water supply). First, this is not salvation as either Nixon or Carter imagined it, because it has been annexed from the idea of political choice, and reimagined as a kind of destiny. The people are not the architects of this revival; they are at best bystanders, and in pockets of the country will either be the unwitting beneficiaries or the victims of market forces well beyond their control. For now, the effects of fracking on American democracy look pretty toxic, as big business does its work on local communities, using its traditional tools of money and fear. Second, this is not an answer to climate change. Not only are the long-term ecological effects unknown, but fracking will do nothing to alter the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. What it does allow is time for more technocratic tinkering, and the possibility of further government investment in sustainable alternatives, though without a national security crisis that investment is liable to be insufficient to kick-start a green revolution. Instead, fracking fuels faith in the idea that the next time innovation is needed to bail the country out, it will. That’s wishful thinking.

Third, many of those who believe in the redemptive powers of fracking don’t pooh-pooh the Nixon/Carter call for democratic self-discipline. They just apply it to something else: the debt. People on the right who embrace the predestined adaptability of American democracy on environmental issues question it on fiscal ones. They have replaced fears of what dependence on overseas oil could do to American democracy with fears of its dependence on overseas capital. The country is now over-reliant on cheap money coming from the Far East – from China above all – which is keeping it afloat on a tide of credit and leaving it vulnerable to the whims of regimes that will eventually run out of patience. The time has come to retrench, because trusting to future generations to sort out the mess is simply shirking the issue. And on the left this argument is turned on its head. The strongest critics of Republican demands for austerity, like Paul Krugman, believe that the debt hawks are heedlessly pressing the panic button. Krugman has faith that the country can spend and inflate its way out of the present crisis without taking excessive risks, and that Republican debt-hawkishness is just scaremongering, serving the special interests of the super-rich to whom the party panders (just as Republicans think that climate scaremongering is serving the special interests of the environmental lobby, to which the Democratic Party panders). On climate, however, Krugman thinks we can’t afford to take risks. The long-term prognosis is sufficiently alarming that there is no reason to think we can wait. We have to act now.

I am not claiming there is a straightforward symmetry here. Pump-priming the US economy does not stand in relation to debt as fracking stands in relation to climate change. The argument tilts one way: on the economy I think Krugman is broadly right and the right are wrong. The case against austerity is much stronger than the case against, say, a carbon tax. The risks are asymmetrical too: the worst-case scenarios of runaway climate change are worse than the worst-case scenarios of runaway inflation and debt repudiation (though both are pretty scary). But people on the left – in America and elsewhere – are kidding themselves if they think there is no symmetry here at all. On both sides there is an assumption that on some issues American democracy needs to keep its options open and rely on its inherent adaptability, but on others it needs to seize the moment and take charge of its fate now. The basic disagreement is over which issues fit the adaptability model and which fit the it’s-time-to-act model. What the two sides share is a belief that it’s possible to keep your options open on some challenges while being alive to the need to seize the moment on others. It is naive to assume that any political system will move cyclically between these two states of mind, or that there is an equilibrium point between them. They are more likely to rub up against each other, making it harder to know what to do. Debt and climate change are the two fundamental long-term challenges facing the American state. In both cases, the idea that you can leave things open until you have to close them down is a hostage to fortune. Will the signal come in time? Will it be recognised when it does?

The idea of cyclicality is a false consolation, though it can also induce a bogus pessimism. American democracy is not doomed. But it is too easy to suggest that, when the time is right, this flexible democracy will seize its moment to act decisively. The waiting is likely to get in the way of the seizing. Moreover, history suggests that the time will only be right when things have gone very badly wrong. Those golden moments many Americans and outsiders look to as examples of democracy at its best were also moments when it had just been at its worst: Lincoln could not have been Lincoln without the Civil War; FDR could not have been FDR without the Great Depression; LBJ couldn’t have got his civil rights programme through Congress without the assassination of JFK. Is it realistic to wish or simply wait for equivalent crises to kick-start the next phase of glory? The problem is that the present state of American democracy – with the consolations of its resilient history – means that the crises would have to be very bad to shake the idea that the country will adapt when it needs to. Yet it also seems likely that the country is less resilient than it once was, because it has got used to the fruits of its astonishing prosperity. The oil crisis of the 1970s wasn’t in the end bad enough to shake the faith, though it came close. The recent financial crisis wasn’t bad enough to engineer a fundamental rethink, at least not yet; the financial system, run by people who learned the lesson from past crises, has managed to patch itself together, for now. So what would it take? Another civil war? Another depression, with a quarter of the country unemployed and a third of output lost? Another assassination, taking place against a backdrop of seething racial discontent? Could present-day America really cope with any of these?

Behind these questions lurks the basic reason we don’t know anything: history provides no sort of guide. There is, in fact, nothing to go on. America is still a fantastically rich, prosperous, dynamic society. Its military remains unmatched, its universities the envy of the world, its culture voraciously consumed, its currency the bedrock of global finance. We don’t know what happens when such a society goes into decline because it has never happened before. America is not Rome (or rather, Rome was never anything like America). Is it, as people sometimes say, Japan? No. American democracy is nothing like Japanese democracy. But more important, no one knows what Japan is, because there has never been a society in history that has combined such prosperity with such a low birth rate. Who knows what will happen there. Is America Greece? No. But more important we don’t know what Greece is, because no society in history has ever gone from being relatively poor (by European standards) to seriously rich (by any standards) and then back to being relatively poor. Will democracy survive? Will military dictatorship make a return? Anyone who says history provides a guide is lying. American democracy has proved far more adaptable in the past than the Greek or the Japanese versions. To rely unthinkingly on its unique adaptability to meet present and future challenges would be crazy. Yet confronting that record of adaptability with calls to seize the moment is fearsomely difficult. The adaptability makes it harder to act decisively, and more likely that the moment will be missed. American democracy may be trapped by its record of success.

It would be just as crazy to try to predict what will happen in the long run. What will the world be like in twenty, forty, sixty years’ time? God alone knows. But there’s one thing I would bet on. The United States will continue to hold its presidential elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In 2072 that will be on Tuesday, 8 November. Nothing else can even remotely be guessed about that year, but in an uncertain world US election day is perhaps the only thing you can set your political watch by. What will that election be like? Again, it’s hard to imagine. Voting will presumably be electronic: perhaps people will blink at a screen. Maybe Texans won’t be able to vote, if the state has seceded. (There is a hope in some quarters that Texas might secede from the Union, and then Austin might secede from Texas, making it the West Berlin of the South, sustained by airlifts of information from the cloud; though West Berlin had the big cars in a sea of tiny East German cars, whereas in Texas it would presumably be the other way round.) Perhaps, instead of Texas leaving, Mexico will have joined. Whatever happens, since this is a US presidential election it is bound to be attended with all the usual hoopla, and the rest of the world will look on with its usual fascination. But it’s possible that by 2072 a new emotion will be part of the mix too: pity, at the self-evident implausibility of it all.

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Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013

David Runciman claims that the 1914-18 war was a European civil war until the Americans joined in in 1917 when it became a world war (LRB, 21 March). No, it became a world war on 23 August 1914 when Japan joined in as a British ally with its eye on German possessions in China and the Pacific Ocean. The German garrisons in China surrendered to the Japanese navy in November. Two months later Japan made its 21 Demands, which would in effect have made China a Japanese protectorate. Britain objected and Japan backed off. Its navy assumed Allied convoy duties in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as the Royal Navy was busy elsewhere. France recruited more than a hundred thousand Chinese workers to work in factories and dig trenches in France before China joined the Allies shortly after the US in 1917.

Vic Carroll

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