Since 2008, there has been a flood of literature worrying about the state of democracy in the United States and abroad. Observers complain that democratic institutions are captured by special interests, incompetent in delivering basic services, or overwhelmed by selfish voters. Lurking in the background is the global resurgence of authoritarianism, a wave bolstered by the Western democracies' apparent mishandling of the global financial crisis.
In Four Crises of Democracy, Alasdair Roberts locates the recent bout of democratic malaise in the US in historical context. Malaise is a recurrent condition in American politics, but each bout can have distinctive characteristics. Roberts focuses on four "crises of democracy," explaining how they differed and how government evolved in response to each crisis. The "crisis of representation" occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was centered on the
question of whether the people really controlled their government. This period was dominated by fears of plutocracy and debates about the rights of African Americans, women and immigrants. The "crisis of mastery" spanned the years 1917-1948, and was preoccupied with building administrative capabilities so that
government could improve its control of economic and international affairs. The "crisis of discipline," beginning in the 1970s, was triggered by the perception that voters and special interests were overloading governments with unreasonable demands. In the final part of his analysis, Roberts asks whether the United States is entering a "crisis of anticipation," in which the question is whether democracies can handle long-term problems like global warming effectively.
Democratic institutions are often said to be rigid and slow to change in response to new circumstances. But Roberts suggests that history shows otherwise. Preceding crises have always produced substantial changes in the architecture of American government. The essential features of the democratic model-societal openness, decentralization, and pragmatism-give it the edge over authoritarian alternatives. A powerful account of how successive crises have shaped American democracy, Four
Crises of Democracy will be essential reading for anyone interested in the forces driving the current democratic malaise in the US and throughout the world.
Alasdair Roberts is a Professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and co-editor of the journal Governance. Professor Roberts received his law degree from the University of Toronto and his PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University.