April 28, 2022
This paper was published by the Niskanen Center.
In 2022, it is no longer difficult to envision the downfall of American democracy. To a growing number of commentators and analysts, this demise almost feels inevitable. If “January 6 was practice” for an authoritarian takeover (as the headline of a December Atlantic article warned us), next time could be for real.
This essay makes the case for resisting the prevailing pessimism. While the threats are obviously real, the prevailing zeitgeist of a downward spiral should, counter-intuitively, be seen as a sign for optimism. Before we can rebuild our democracy, we first have to acknowledge that it is, in fact, falling apart. And we are indeed starting to realize this―hence the pervasive panic, that repeated prerequisite for reform. This is why I am ultimately optimistic. And why you should be, too.
In this essay, I will seek out some lessons from history that should inform our optimism. Though much is unique about our current impasse, much is also familiar. All democracies have ups and downs. American democracy has had ups and downs. We are in a “down.” And some “downs” last a long time. But they never last forever. Thus, the first lesson of history―“the inevitability of course change”―is perhaps the most obvious. Each generation is a reaction to the previous generation.
But if the first lesson of history seems obvious, we keep forgetting it. Thus, the second lesson is “the illusion of course continuation.” That is, just as course change is inevitable, so is it almost equally inevitable that we forget this, and delude ourselves into thinking we have somehow escaped the broader patterns of history.
Time and again, we mistakenly predict that we have reached some new stage that will somehow last for centuries (e.g., we are at the “End of x” or “This time is really different” or Yale economist Irving Fisher’s September 1929 conclusion that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”). Time and again, we mistakenly make straight-line projections about markets or demographics or politics, assuming that whatever trends have led us to this moment, they will continue indefinitely. But they never do.