Successful democracies have plenty of institutional safeguards against the hubris of individuals. In an autocracy the danger is that a crazed or self-aggrandizing leader will lead the state over a cliff. In a democracy it is much more difficult for a mad leader or a mad idea to take hold for long. Before they go over the cliff, democracies will vote mad leaders out of office. Regular elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and professionalized bureaucracy all provide protection against being dragged down by the worst kinds of personal misjudgments. In the long run, mistakes in a stable democracy don't prove calamitous because they don't become entrenched. That doesn't stop democracies from making mistakes, however; if anything, it encourages it. It is some consolation in a democracy to know that nothing bad lasts for long, but it is no answer to the question of what should be done in a crisis. Moreover, consolation can produce its own kind of complacency. Knowing that they are safe from the worst effects of hubris can make democracies reckless -- what's the worst that could happen? -- as well as sluggish -- why not wait for the system to correct itself? That is why the crises keep coming.
The person who first noticed the distinctive character of democratic hubris -- how it is consistent with the dynamism of democratic societies, how democratic adaptability goes along with democratic drift -- was Alexis de Tocqueville. Ever since Tocqueville wrote nearly two hundred years ago, people have been arguing about whether he was really an optimist or a pessimist about democracy. The truth is that he was both, and therefore neither. The grounds for democratic optimism were the source of Tocqueville's fundamental worries about democracy. This is what made him such an original thinker in his own time and what makes him such an important thinker for ours. He did not share either the concerns of the traditional critics of democracy or the hopes of its modern champions. Tocqueville takes a distinct approach, which makes him the indispensable guide to the ongoing relationship between democracy and crisis.
The history of crises is a story of uncertain fears, missed opportunities, and inadvertent triumphs. It is a tale of contingency and confusion. There are no easy ways out of our current predicament. We are caught in a trap. If there were an easy way out, it would not be a trap. But seeing how we are trapped is an essential part of understanding what the future might hold.
Tocqueville first identified the ambivalent character of democratic progress by studying America. Since his time, the story of democracy has widened to include other established democracies, including India, Israel, Japan, etc. Nonetheless, the United States remains at the heart of it. The United States remains the place where it can still be seen most clearly. I am not suggesting, any more than Tocqueville was, that America is democracy, nor that democracy is only possible on the American model. But if the American model is being undone by its own success, that has significant implications for democracies everywhere.
We know a lot more than we used to about how democracies succeed and why. What we don't know is what to do with this knowledge. That is the problem.