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Keywords:

  • Democracy;
  • ‘end of history’;
  • markets;
  • confidence;
  • war;
  • crisis

The success story of democracy over the twentieth century has given way to doubts in the twenty-first, as democracies struggle to cope with difficult wars, mounting debts, climate change and the rise of China. This essay uses intellectual history to explain the link between long-term democratic success and short-term democratic failure. It distinguishes three distinct views of what can go wrong with democracy, and identifies the third (which I call ‘the confidence trap’, an idea that originates with Tocqueville) as the key to understanding our present predicament. Democratic success creates blind spots and a reluctance to tackle long-term problems. I use this idea to explain and put in context Fukuyama's claims about the end of history, and to examine the link between democratic failure and market failure.