Patterson Pontificates: The onward march of history
The past holds no certainties and the future keeps no guarantees. This is cause for both hope and despair.
Saturday marked the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the wall dividing Berlin in 1989. It was an utterly inexplicable event: setting into motion the reunification of Germany under a liberal democracy and harbingering the collapse of the Soviet empire. Few, if any, saw it coming. Onlookers around the world cheered as great, churning masses of people proudly walked out of the repressive and authoritarian eastern side of Germany into the free west where friends, long-separated loved ones and well-meaning strangers stood ready to welcome them back into the polity of free nations.
As the Soviet Union capitulated from within, many commentators declared that democracy had finally won its great struggle against dictatorship. After all, (said the prevailing wisdom of the time) democratic countries never fight one another, and therefore the free peoples of the world could finally link arms and form a united phalanx against the surviving despots and autocrats.
As the Berlin Wall was crumbling, many believed that they were witnessing the “end of history.” That was 30 years ago, and it looks to me like history has kept rolling right on along.
Whereas the cultural zeitgeist of 1989 may have been such as to convince the Francis Fukuyamas of the world that the proliferation of the Western-style, free-market democracies signaled the final stage of humanity’s civilizational evolution, it appears that the tide is beginning to recede and turn in the opposite direction. Core democratic norms meant to ensure peace, prosperity, and freedom for all people are under serious threat around the world. Russia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Brazil and innumerable other countries have regressed into some form of authoritarianism, whether it be via a populist demagogue or an oligarchic mafia don with a personality cult.
Thirty years after the “end of history,” s— is hitting the proverbial fan. So where does that leave the United States, the supposed leader of the free world? Well, its funny you should ask.
These days, it doesn’t exactly take an edgy teenage libertarian or a college campus communist to tell you that, recently, America hasn’t exactly been living up to its cultural mythology as the lone ranger or the lady liberty standing up for the little guy against their iron-fisted overlords. Instead, the U.S. is experiencing a backslide of its own.
Since the middle of the 20th century, our Congress has seen fit to abdicate its authority piece by piece to our executive, which is increasingly (and worryingly) unitary. Today, the legislature finally seems to be waking up to the fact that it is not, as my high school civics textbook would have it, co-equal to the presidency. Our White House is seemingly bent on eroding the institutions upon which we rely to maintain a balance of power between the branches of government. Such disdain for institutions is a trait which is disconcertainly common in nascent authoritarian states.
This week, the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives will be broadcast live with two days of public hearings on Wednesday and Friday, following more than a month of the Democratic-led investigation and more than a dozen closed-door depositions. The impeachment inquiry has been billed as a referendum on a single president, yet it represents so much more.
Whether or not the president is held accountable for actions which constitute such a breach of ethics (leaving aside the question of whether those actions were illegal) that any public official should be loathe to even vaguely approximate such behavior, the conclusion of these inquiries will show the public whether or not institutional checks and balances still persist in any substantive way.
A betting man would tell you that the president is likely to walk away scott-free from these hearings, no matter how much smoke is billowing out the smoking gun. If the Mueller Report, the innumerable leaks, the ethics violations, and the twitter rants don’t convince the president’s allies to withdraw their support, this inquiry probably won’t either. Many have vested their hopes in the idea that the Constitution will somehow save the day, forgetting, of course, that the Constitution is only more than a piece of paper if we believe it to be.
So where does this leave us?
It is incredibly worrisome that so many major liberal democracies are now either faltering in their uphill battle for maintaining democratization or even regressing downward towards authoritarianism. It could be very well the case that we will not witness any rebound toward democratization within our lifetimes. Should we resign ourselves to the entropy of the times? To the increasing amount of cracks in the Western liberal edifice? Not necessarily. That sort of pessimism of weakness is of no help to anyone.
Remember the key mistake made in 1989, when they declared that history had no direction except onwards and upwards for the good guys. The same applies now: it would be grossly naive to declare the “end of history” again, to declare that world events would continue to swirl down the toilet unstoppably. There is no guarantee of anything.
If we are living on the precipice of a new age in which democracy everywhere will regress, then it is still worth it to combat the apparent entropy in any way you can. The ideal in itself is worth your support. Even if the cause is a losing one, Western liberal democracy needs to be defended, even as traditional champions like the U.S. stumble and risk toppling over completely.
The past holds no certainties and the future keeps no guarantees. Times presses relentlessly forward.
Mitchell Patterson is the Executive Editor of The Review and the President of the university’s International Relations Club. His views are his own and do not reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. Patterson may be reached via JMPatter@udel.edu.