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The Confidence Trap:
A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present
David Runciman

One of The Guardian’s Readers’ Books of the Year for 2014

Hardcover | 2013 | $29.95 | ($17.97) / £19.95 | (£11.97) | ISBN: 9780691148687
408 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
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Why do democracies keep lurching from success to failure? The current financial crisis is just the latest example of how things continue to go wrong, just when it looked like they were going right. In this wide-ranging, original, and compelling book, David Runciman tells the story of modern democracy through the history of moments of crisis, from the First World War to the economic crash of 2008.

A global history with a special focus on the United States, The Confidence Trap examines how democracy survived threats ranging from the Great Depression to the Cuban missile crisis, and from Watergate to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It also looks at the confusion and uncertainty created by unexpected victories, from the defeat of German autocracy in 1918 to the defeat of communism in 1989. Throughout, the book pays close attention to the politicians and thinkers who grappled with these crises: from Woodrow Wilson, Nehru, and Adenauer to Fukuyama and Obama.

The Confidence Trap shows that democracies are good at recovering from emergencies but bad at avoiding them. The lesson democracies tend to learn from their mistakes is that they can survive them--and that no crisis is as bad as it seems. Breeding complacency rather than wisdom, crises lead to the dangerous belief that democracies can muddle through anything--a confidence trap that may lead to a crisis that is just too big to escape, if it hasn't already. The most serious challenges confronting democracy today are debt, the war on terror, the rise of China, and climate change. If democracy is to survive them, it must figure out a way to break the confidence trap.

David Runciman is professor of politics at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity Hall. His books include The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy (both Princeton). He writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.


"His rich and refreshing book will be of intense interest to anyone puzzled by the near paralysis that seems to afflict democratic government in a number of countries, not least the United States. Runciman's account of the workings of the confidence trap--the belief that democracy will always survive--will serve as an antidote to the moods of alarm and triumph by which writers on democracy are regularly seized."--John Gray, New York Review of Books

"Runciman's book abounds with fresh insights, arresting paradoxes, and new ways of posing old problems. It is part intellectual history, an absorbing study of the modern debate on democracy through the contrasting perspectives of key public intellectuals, such as Walter Lippmann, George F. Kennan, Francis Fukuyama and Friedrich Hayek, and part analysis of the problem of political leadership in democracies, explored through the decisions taken by leaders, particularly US presidents, and the constraints under which they operate."--Andrew Gamble, Times Literary Supplement

"[An] ingenious account of how free nations faced seven international crises from 1918 to 2008. . . . Runciman concludes that democracy will probably survive, having made a delightfully stimulating, if counterintuitive case, that the unnerving tendency of democracies to stumble into crises is matched by their knack for getting out of them."--Publishers Weekly

"[A] historically sensitive and subtle response to the democratic crisis."--Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk, The Nation

"[B]rilliantly and convincingly delivered. The big story of mature democracies in crisis is told with remarkable confidence and brio. Runciman writes lucidly and compellingly: this is a book that you cannot put down."--Georgios Varouxakis, Standpoint

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Table of Contents:

Preface xi
Introduction: Tocqueville: Democracy and Crisis 1
Chapter 1 1918: False Dawn 35
Chapter 2 1933: Fear Itself 76
Chapter 3 1947: Trying Again 111
Chapter 4 1962: On the Brink 145
Chapter 5 1974: Crisis of Confidence 184
Chapter 6 1989: The End of History 225
Chapter 7 2008: Back to the Future 263
Epilogue The Confidence Trap 293
Acknowledgments 327
Notes 329
Bibliography 345
Index 369

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by David Runciman:

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