There is a troubling undercurrent to American politics that you can sometimes hear if you listen closely. In between the gripings about Congressional ineptitude and fears of inevitable Chinese world domination, there is an insidious termite within our walls: the fear that democracy may not be working anymore. Thomas Freidman, pundit extraordinaire, puts it most succinctly in his wish that we could be “China for a day,” in order to cut past the bureaucratic mess and get things accomplished for once; but he is hardly the only one. Such an idea, seductive as it may sound, is precisely the way that democracies die. None of the great anti-democrats, from Caesar to Hitler, claimed they were out to destroy democracy. Rather, they claimed they were simply purging it of its worst excesses and inefficiencies. That’s something worth keeping in mind these days.
History is often portrayed in America as the inevitable progress of humanity toward a better tomorrow, powered by vast and impersonal social forces. This poisonous thinking has made us a little bit too complacent in defending American democracy. Nothing in history is inevitable, and many great achievements are easily reversible. Democracy is no exception. The Roman Republic collapsed in a wave of civil war and tyranny. Russian democracy lasted all of several months in 1917 before the Bolshevik takeover. German democracy undid itself from within in the 1920s and 30s as the German electorate elected those who openly ridiculed democracy as weak and decadent. The end of democratic rule in 1930s Japan played out in much the same fashion.
The important thing to note about all of these cases is that the threats came from within. Democracy in America is not nearly as safe as many of us like to think it is. As Ronald Reagan once correctly pointed out, freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. Nowhere is it decreed that America must stay the way it is forever. Would the Constitution save us? Not likely—constitutions can be replaced. It is ultimately on the battlefield of the hearts and minds of the people that democracy can be saved or lost. The Constitution only holds value because we say it does. If tomorrow every American decided to no longer respect it, it would be nothing more than a piece of paper, and an old one at that.
The fundamental problem is that we cannot be China for a single day. Once the keys of democracy are given away, they are immensely hard to get back. There were many in Germany in the 1930s that believed that parliamentary institutions could contain Hitler and that German democracy was safe. They, and their country, were to pay a high price for this belief. Meanwhile, academics on both the Left and Right had given up hope in Western-style democracy and either withdrew from politics entirely or jumped eagerly on the Hitlerian bandwagon. When democracy needed them most, they were nowhere to be found.
I would not want to be seen as fear-mongering, however. You are not going to wake up one day living in a fascist state. Democracy still retains enormous appeal here, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. There have been plenty of times in the past when some in the nation have lost faith in democracy (the Great Depression and the 1960s come to mind), and we pulled through. All I wish to say is that some things are too important to take chances with. Bashing democratic inefficiency is fine and quite often necessary, but be thankful you still have it to kick around. Nowhere is it written that has to be true forever.
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