“I genuinely think 2020 is scary”: David Runciman on Trump, young people, and the future of democracy

Angus Colwell speaks to Professor David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University and host of the Talking Politics podcast.

** This article originally appeared in Pi Media on March 2, 2020.**

Podcasts are in vogue. As a medium, politics has penetrated the format extensively — every major newspaper now has at least one politics podcast, with outlets such as the Spectator and the Economist offering as frequent as daily analysis.

Journalists, however, don’t have a monopoly on politics coverage. The podcast Talking Politics has been a popular academic revelation. Named as one of Harper’s Bazaars podcasts that shaped the decade”, the show has amassed 12 million listens since September 2016. Its origins were humble — for the weeks leading up to the 2015 UK general election, Cambridge University’s politics department ran a podcast (Election). University funding dried up, and the show continued independently of the university structures as Talking Politics, in partnership with the LRB. It has a more global outlook than current journalistic offerings: Cambridge experts have discussed Italian, French and Irish politics this year alone, as well as UK and the US. Guests have included Yuval Noah Harari, John Gray, Michael Gove, Jill Lepore, and Thomas Piketty. It’s a recipe that works — they now have over 100,000 weekly listeners. The success proves that some clearly haven’t “had enough of experts”.

David Runciman, professor of politics and former head of department at Cambridge University, serves as the podcast’s host, inquisitively probing the various academics and guests. When he does so, he inquires with a tentative undertone that modestly welcomes the uninitiated. Runciman is the “public intellectual” — his books How Democracy Ends and Where Power Stops have long been resident in Waterstones’ foyers, and he is no stranger to chairing discussions with other thought leaders. Helen Thompson, professor of political economy, is the podcast’s other primary talking head, often making astute points that tie visiting experts in rhetorical knots. “I’ve learnt a lot from Helen Thompson,” Runciman tells me. “We get a lot of feedback about that!”

I met Runciman on a fortunate day for a political interview — 11am on 31st January, exactly 12 hours before the UK left the European Union. The vastly pro-Remain Cambridge showed no mark of a town in grieving. “The emotion has gone,” he admits, “but all of the possibilities have opened up.” He sees the Brexit chaos of 2016–19 as largely deceptive: “the emotion and the passion was real, but the sense that there were all these possible paths we could go down was a complete illusion.” The second referendum campaign “had to explain how you got there through a parliament, and I never heard a good answer to that. I think over the next five to ten years, the anger and the frustrations — material, economic, travel — and almost certainly the sense of betrayal as Brexit becomes real — that will find somewhere to go.”

“If I was told that in only twenty years’ time my lot would be close to getting a majority, I would do something about it before then”

As an academic, Runciman spends his professional life with university students. He has a track record of concern about the near-disenfranchisement of young people as the population ages, making headlines in 2018 when he wryly suggested lowering the voting age to six. Age is the boldest dividing line in British politics — YouGov found evidence of a country mirroring itself at the 2019 election as 56% of 18–24-year-olds voted Labour to 21% Conservative, with 57% of 60–69-year-olds voting Conservative to 22% Labour. “The question is — as those people age and become the older cohorts, what happens? That’s one of the big questions for politics that we just don’t know. If it’s a lot more to do with, for want of better words, culture and identity than material and economic factors, then there’s no reason to think that those attitudes will shift.” I ask him whether young people should be satisfied with just waiting for the reorientation — “It’s too slow!” he fires back, “and if I was 20 years old and I was told that in only 20 years time my lot would be close to getting a majority, I would do something about it before then.”

His objection ties in with a wider suspicion of our voting system. “The great advantage of the two-party, first-past-the-post system is that it does force main parties to the centre, but it also forces them to co-opt and make respectable what under other electoral systems would be freestanding, more extreme positions. We don’t have an Alternative für Deutschland, we don’t have a Salvini, we don’t have a Le Pen, but our system can pull the main parties to the left and to the right, and it also pulls the more extreme positions nearer to the middle.” We might rejoice the collapse of UKIP and the Brexit Party, but have their ideas and ideology just been adopted by a more acceptable face? He also has a wider contention with our voting system which, in the month that Johnson appointed Suella Braverman as attorney-general, seems prescient. “I’m not a fan of the first-past-the-post British system, because I think it gives majority governments too much power and minority governments too little power. Who in their right mind would enter a coalition again because it destroys your party! The future will more likely be ad hoc minorities more like Theresa May’s government, but if you have a majority of 80 under the British system, there’s just no check.”

“The day that Dominic Cummings arrests the editor of the Today programme, come back and ask me and I will tell you that we have become Hungary!”

Might we be vulnerable to democratic backsliding akin to eastern European politics then? “I don’t think that Cummings and Johnson are about to take us down the Orbán [the Hungarian prime minister] route because parliament won’t allow them to do it. There’s a huge difference between established democratic institutions and relatively young ones like Hungary. And not [having ministers] going on the Today programme — the Orbán version of it is you shut down the Today programme and arrest the editor! The government is riding high now, but the laws of political gravity mean that in two to three years it won’t be. And when you’re not, you can’t be so picky. But the day that Dominic Cummings arrests the editor of the Today programme, come back and ask me and I will tell you that we have become Hungary!” When it comes to democracy, Runciman is not a fan of comparisons with history (“we will miss the new ways that democracy is failing because we were looking for Hitler”), or of looking for similarities between entrenched democracies and younger democracies (“the US is not Hungary”). “We could hold on to this current model of democracy past the point where it’s able to function effectively, and it’s not true that the alternative is the abyss.”

Runciman cites a new Cambridge initiative — the Centre for the Future of Democracy, launched in January, with a report by Roberto Foa finding a widespread dissatisfaction towards democracy. “Hungary is where people are most satisfied with democracy, and I would say that’s a really bad sign because you could totally see how a majoritarian system could thrive. In Britain people are dissatisfied with democracy — on that measure, it’s a good sign.” This malaise is part of a widespread collective distrust of our institutions — “we’re left with just the Queen now! Helen and I often talk about what happens when the Queen dies, because the royal family itself as an institution is now gone from public trust! I don’t know the polling evidence, but I think the Queen is the last institution that people are broadly for”.

There is one figure fighting democracy that remains most remarkable to him, however — the 45th President of the United States. “His tweets, his this, his that, it’s like a knife through the butter of information space. I thought people would have worked out barriers, and they haven’t. Trump’s way of doing politics just continues to cut through.” We have an enjoyable word-fumble when he describes the president as a “great demagogue”, the meaning of which vastly changes depending upon italics. “Don’t make that the headline!”

“The silent majority in America are still not the kind of people you see either at Bernie rallies or Trump rallies,” he maintains. “Obviously if you watch Fox News or go on Twitter, it looks as though everyone is shouting. But I think most people’s experience is that they’re not shouting at other people all the time. I suspect that America’s not as angry as it seems. Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile — that looks like people are really angry, right?”

“I think it could get messier than where we are now”

I try to explore the possibility with him that we haven’t seen the worst of Trump yet. “I think the ultimate test, the one thing where you can really see a potential breakpoint, is Trump losing in 2020 narrowly, and in some way refusing to accept the result. If he loses, it could be ugly. If he wins, he’s got four more years and he’s doubly vindicated. He might get one Supreme Court justice or more, and take his attacks to the media to a new level. So I think it could get messier than where we are now.” Trump is certainly where Runciman speaks with the most emotion: “I genuinely think 2020 is scary. I’m not diagnosing him, but all human beings suffer from loss aversion. Not giving him the presidency when he didn’t have it would have messed with his head, but taking it away from when he does have it would seriously mess with his head.” But his holistic view of Trump is nuanced. “I think people underrate what is probably the most important quality in a political leader which is stamina. And he is absolutely relentless.”

We consider post-Trump. It seems unlikely that, as a personality at least, what comes after Trump will be as outlandish. But he does consider the possibility of an unprecedented alternative in which the US embraces a more militaristic form of national conservatism. “There’s another version, which is where America turns into Brazil, electing a ‘crazy soldier’ [Bolsonaro] — a channeling of the rage into violence. That would be pretty scary. Obviously, it would be amazing and strange if they elected Bernie, but it wouldn’t be outside the bounds. Of all these things that have happened in the world in the last few years, the one that still freaks me out is Trump being president. It’s giving power, even with constitutional limits, to a seriously damaged human being.”

Runciman’s most recent lines of argument, seen in Where Power Stops, is that the nature of the leader reveals the power of the office. “After Soleimani, Trump has reminded the world of the power of that office. But the expression of power delivers less bang for the buck each time he does it. But he could still kill us all, and so could Bernie if he wants!” We briefly consider the Democrat race, at this point talking before the Iowa caucus: “In the Democrat race, it sounds ridiculous to say, but there isn’t a Keir Starmer. In American politics, there’s rarely a ‘fine’ candidate. The tribes in America are just so much more pronounced. But it’s weird that the ‘Republican fine’ candidate wins — like George HW Bush — and the Democrat ones lose.”

On this thought, he ends with a line emblematic of his humility. “I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’ve no idea what it is — you’d have to ask Helen!” This light wearing of learning, shown every week on Talking Politics, has shown that academia need not be remote. No political observers are too lofty to recognise that 2020 is a genuinely scary prospect.