IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
The Dark Century
by David Brooks
reprinted/ condensed/ NY Times
History is reverting toward barbarism. We have authoritarian strongmen in Russia and China, cyberattacks undermining the world order, democracy in retreat worldwide, thuggish populists across the West undermining nations from within.
What the hell happened? What is the key factor that has made the 21st century so regressive and dangerous? Is the populace rejecting liberalism? If so, what weakness in liberalism are its enemies exploiting? Let me offer one explanation.
Many of America’s founders were fervent believers in liberal democracy — up to a point. They had a profound respect for individual virtue, but also individual frailty. Samuel Adams said, “Ambitions and lust for power … are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” Patrick Henry admitted to feelings of dread when he contemplated the “depravity of human nature.” One delegate to the constitutional convention said that the people “lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.”
Our founders were aware that majorities are easily led by ambitious demagogues, so our founders built a system that respected popular opinion and majority rule while trying to build guardrails to check popular passion and prejudice.
The crimes of the constitutional order are by now well known, the most egregious of which was acquiescing to the existence of slavery and prolonging that institution for nearly another century. We also must not forget that the early democratic system enfranchised only a small share of adult Americans.
But the genius of the Constitution was trying to prevent undue concentrations of power by dividing power among the branches. They built in a whole series of republican checks, so that demagogues and populist crazes would not sweep over the land.
While the Constitution guarded against abuses of power, the founders believed that a much more important set of civic practices would mold people to be capable of being self-governing citizens:
Churches were meant to teach virtue; leaders were to receive classical education, so they might understand the fragility of democracy; everyday citizens were to lead their lives as yeoman farmers so they might learn to live simply and work hard; civic associations and local government would instill the habits of public service; patriotic rituals would instill shared love of country; newspapers and magazines would in theory create a well-informed citizenry; etiquette rules and democratic manners were adopted to encourage social equality and mutual respect.
The founders knew that democracy is not natural.
It takes a lot of cultivation to make democracy work.
Just as America’s founders understood that democracy is not natural, the postwar generation understood that peace is not natural — it has to be tended and cultivated from the frailties of human passion and greed.
The postWWII generation championed democracy, but they had no illusions about the depravity of human beings. They’d read their history and understood that stretching back thousands of years, war, authoritarianism, exploitation, great powers crushing little ones — these were just the natural state of human societies.
If America was to be secure, Americans would have to plant the seeds of democracy, but also do all the work of cultivation so those seeds could flourish. They funded the Marshall Plan, and they helped build multinational institutions like NATO, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
American military might stood ready to push back against the wolves who threatened the world order — sometimes effectively, as in Europe, but oftentimes, as in Vietnam and Iraq, recklessly and self-destructively. America made sure that it championed democracy and human rights, at least when the Communists were violating them (not so much when our allied Latin American dictators did so).
Over the past few generations that hopeful but sober view of
human nature has faded. What’s been called the Culture of Narcissism took hold, with the view that human beings should be unshackled from restraint believing that we can trust
ourselves to be unselfish.
Democracy and world peace became taken for granted.
As Robert Kagan put it in his book “The Jungle Grows Back”:
“We have lived so long inside the bubble of the liberal order that we can imagine no other kind of world. We think it is natural and normal, even inevitable.”
Even in America, over the past decades, the institutions that earlier generations thought were essential to molding a democratic citizenry have withered or malfunctioned. Many churches and media outlets have gone partisan. Civics education has receded. Neighborhood organizations have shrunk. Patriotic rituals are out of fashion.
What happens when you don’t tend the seedbeds of democracy? Chaos? War? No, you return to normal. The 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were normal. Today, big countries like China, Russia and Turkey are ruled by fierce leaders with massive power. That’s normal. Small aristocracies in many nations hog gigantic shares of their nations’ wealth. That’s normal. Many people come to despise cultural outsiders, like immigrants. Normal. Global affairs resembles the law of the jungle, with big countries threatening small ones.
This is the way it’s been for most of human history.
The 21st century has become a dark century because the seedbeds of democracy have been neglected and normal historical authoritarianism is on the march. Putin in Russia and Xi in China seem confident that the winds of history are at their back.
Putin has established political order in Russia by reviving the Russian strong state tradition and by concentrating power in the hands of one man. He has established economic order through a grand bargain with oligarch-led firms, with him as the ultimate C.E.O. As Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy write in their book, Mr. Putin, corruption is the glue that holds the system together. Everybody’s wealth is deliberately tainted, so Putin has the power to accuse anyone of corruption and remove anyone at any time.
Putin has redefined global conservatism and made himself its global leader. Many conservatives around the world see Putin’s strong, manly authority, his defense of traditional values and his enthusiastic embrace of orthodox faith, and they see their aspirations in human form. Right-wing leaders from Donald Trump in the United States to Marine Le Pen in France to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines speak of Putin admiringly.
But the problems of democracy and the liberal order can’t be solved from the top down. The real problem is in the seedbeds of democracy, the institutions that are supposed to mold a citizenry and make us qualified to practice democracy. To restore those seedbeds, we first have to relearn the wisdom of the founders: We are not as virtuous as we think we are. Americans are no better than anyone else. Democracy is not natural; it is an artificial accomplishment that takes enormous work.
Then we need to fortify the institutions that are supposed to teach the democratic skills: how to weigh evidence and commit to truth; how to correct for your own partisan blinders and learn to doubt your own opinions; how to respect people you disagree with; how to avoid catastrophism, conspiracy and apocalyptic thinking; how to avoid supporting demagogues; how to craft complex compromises.
The citizens of democracy are not born, they are made. If the 21st century is to get brighter as it goes along, we don’t only have to worry about the people tearing down democracy … we have to worry about who is building it up.
The Greek Perspective
by Homer the Gaucho
Lemonade Overseas Correspondent
This is Brooks at his best as he seems to know a lot about behavioral psychology and its affect on history. For me, the critical idea of the piece was all of the checks and balances (churches, education, unbiased information, civic associations, basic etiquette) as safeguards of the common good with respect to majority rule.
In a somewhat similar fashion, ancient Greek history reveals that ‘checks’ came about organically by obliged participation of all citizens – I don’t think they were spelled out by law or design. I’m not really sure about how they characterized the natural depravity of the human soul, but it did not seem to be reflected in their design of democratic governance.
As we’ve discussed previously, scale of democracy plays a vital part here. America’s huge and ‘inclusive’ democracy is so out of context to the ancient’s homogeneous world. I think scale also affects how societies manage individualism and how that fits in with collective responsibility.
Virtuous civic practices (as Brooks points out, practices that are failing in the US) are much easier to manage in smaller traditional societies that have natural organic alignments of language, religion, blood, customs, etc. Early Greeks, although the creators of Democracy, were much more collective and ‘common good orientated’ than the term suggests (viewed from the American definition of Democracy).
And finally, if what Brooks says is a roadmap of the future then I would think that the Chinese system is well placed to be in the driver’s seat. I think over time restrained common good bests hyper individualism especially given the scale and complexity of today’s societies.
Homer the Gaucho is the pseudonym used by Damon Morrison,
born and raised in America, married into a Greek family, student of Greek History,
living in Athens for the past 28 years.
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