“We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.” …Winston Churchill to Canadian Parliament in 1941
Shadi Hamid wrote a good piece in The Atlantic on why the “democracy-is-doomed crowd was wrong.” It turns out America’s republic likely has more durability than apocalyptic Cassandras typically admit. But warning of impending collapse generates a tingle:
Being in a constant state of alarm, particularly when there’s little actual threat of being imprisoned for your beliefs, can be unusually thrilling. Carl Schmitt, the hugely influential jurist-philosopher who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, called this the romance of “the occasion.” Romantics, writes the political theorist David Runciman, “want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.”
Hamid observed that democracy is not as fragile as commonly imagined:
If we exclude cases of military conquest or occupation, as occurred during World War II, there is no clear case of a long-standing, consolidated democracy becoming an autocracy. Democracies backslide—it is a spectrum, after all. But democracies, or at least certain kinds of democracies, do not “die.”
It’s a old American habit, maybe rooted in our Puritan past, to fret that our democracy hovers on the edge of catastrophe, like the metaphorical spider dangling over the flames in Jonathan Edwards’ terrifying sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
How many times is Ben Franklin quoted when asked after leaving the Constitutional Convention what form of government had been drafted: “A republic, if you can keep it.” In fact, there’s little evidence Franklin said it. And if he did, he was perhaps half ironic. What other form of government would Americans choose and keep?
Fears about American democracy typically overestimate the powers of our own generation and underestimate the accumulated habits of centuries that have inextricably shaped who we are. We may imagine we have sufficient power unto ourselves to nullify the past, but such thoughts are vanity.
Ronald Reagan had the unfortunate habit of often quoting Thomas Paine’s revolutionary claim, as he did in his famous 1983 “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals: “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” Reagan called Paine a “founding father,” but no other Founding Father would have agreed with this cant. The American people, like all nations, are products of their history. No people can erase the past. They can only learn from it.
The Anglo-American democratic project dates at least to the first British parliament that emerged from Magna Carta over 800 years ago, and which itself was rooted in more ancient Anglo-Saxon councils. The political trajectory from then until now was not straight but it was persistent. A regime of laws rather than of the whims of monarchs or other potentates was the ongoing result.
Parliament claimed taxing powers as a safeguard against royal tyranny and standing armies. Attempts at royalist absolutism by the Stuarts in the 1600s were defeated by the ever more powerful parliament, first through Civil War, and finally by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which consummated parliamentary supremacy.
America’s first legislature was in Jamestown 400 years ago this year, and ever since there have always been elected legislative bodies in America, which have the power of taxation and expenditure. The American Revolution was a revolt by its colonial legislatures against the monarch and British parliament for disregarding their constitutional restraints.
Reputedly George Washington could have been a king, but he knew Americans well enough to see this idea as nonsense. When Jefferson warned him of monarchists in his administration, Washington rightly dismissed the claim as ridiculous. When some of his officers at Newburgh had threatened military coup against Congress, he easily suppressed their crazy talk. Anglo-American culture, except briefly in the 1650s, has never tolerated military rule.
No crisis, not even Civil War or world wars, has distracted Anglo-American culture from its ongoing democratic project. Presidents have been accused of dictatorial ambitions, but the allegations upon later reflection always appear hyperbolic. There is little precedent and no appetite in Anglo-American politics for tyrants. Rulers in our tradition are more typically tolerated or mocked than lionized much less glorified.
Democracy in the Anglo-American tradition of course often has been unjust, hypocritical and corrupt. Our people and our governments are sinners like all others. But there’s almost always been no toleration for aspiring autocrats. For America, this tradition is 400 years old, and for the broader Anglo tradition it is unevenly 800 years old. Such history is not easily undone, not even by a corrupted generation determined to do so. Cultural habits accumulated across centuries are deeply embedded, like rings in an ancient Redwood.
Of course, some democracies have regressed to tyranny, but they typically were relatively new and unstable, as Hamid recalled. Bolshevism followed Russia’s very brief republic. The Third Reich followed the not much longer Weimar Republic. Japanese militarists subverted a flirtation with parliamentary democracy. These dictatorships connected to historical antecedents in their respective cultures.
Today, Germany and Japan have enjoyed 70 years of stable democracy, initially imposed by American-Anglo power. Russia has reverted once again to authoritarianism. Nations that link with the American-Anglo liberal economic sphere and live under its military protection are today largely democratic. Marxist and Islamist regimes, with other autarkies, resist the allure of democracy and instead connect with other equally embedded cultural traditions, sometimes backed by millennia.
To what extent can cultures outside American-Anglo culture successfully adopt its democratic habits? And if adopted, could they long survive the absence of American-Anglo military and economic power? Are democratic habits based on universal laws or the construct of a particular culture?
These questions lack easy answers. But the centuries of progression illuminating Anglo-American democracy are formidable and historically unique. Our own republic at any particular moment may disappoint and embarrass. But when viewed broadly relative to human history its accomplishments and endurance are remarkable.
The failures and foibles of one generation cannot easily if at all warp this achievement and its ongoing trajectory, by God’s mercy. May we shelter gratefully under the protection of this trans-generational gift. And may we in our own times contribute to and not subtract from this providential political legacy.