The 2020 election in historical context.

Heading into our presidential election, it is worth reminding the electorate how unusual our circumstances are. I am not referring to the country’s extreme political division and dysfunction, but instead to our framework of classical liberalism where individuals matter so much in a system of governance that they are actually asked to vote on the leadership of the country. From a historical perspective, that is an extremely rare approach to the management of complex societies.

But to many of us, it does not seem abnormal at all. In fact, our system of representative democracy within a legal and financial system that privileges individual rights seems stable and perpetual. That is the natural tendency in any society: to assume that history has been “leading” to the present time in a more or less natural progression.

There are exceptions, of course, individuals or groups expecting or pushing for major changes, but for most people, most of the time, they are likely to perceive their current situation as “normal”, perhaps far from perfect and with room for improvement, but still to be expected.  The leading denizens of any empire or hegemon that you can point to in the Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern or current world, whether in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, or Africa had would not have doubted that their privileged position was the natural outcome of a historical process and was likely to remain as it was, if not continue to improve.

For an example we can relate to more directly, the Victorians had no reason to question England’s dominance coming out of the 19th century.  The Whig interpretation of history gave them a robust supporting narrative.  Since the early 20th century and certainly after the Second World War, it has been easy for the Americans who think about these things to envision a similar course of progress and individual liberty continuing in perpetuity.  Our own branded narrative—”American exceptionalism”—described the unique circumstances of our creation (compared to the European turn to liberalism) and an implied continuation of it. This explicit complacency does not necessarily extend to the disenfranchised or the underprivileged who have plenty of reason to be discontented, but many of those individuals would also likely opt for in-system improvements rather than pushing for an entirely different social or political structure. Such is the weight of this natural and unavoidable “presentism.”

Our political self-satisfaction rose markedly three decades ago when the classical liberal model appeared to have prevailed against its primary 20th century challenger. The former Soviet Union was in tatters and most major countries around the globe had adopted some form of “liberalism” with nominal elections, nominal separation of powers, constitutions, respect for individual liberties and a push toward market economies. There were a handful of exceptions, but they only served to “prove the rule.”   The political structure of northwestern Europe had “won” and had spread throughout the world. Looking backwards, historians found the origins for it in Greece and Rome, the burghers of medieval Europe, the towns of Renaissance Italy, the emergence of parliaments and self-governance in various northern European locales, with leadership of this brand of operation increasingly shifting to the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was “The End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama famously declared in the National Interest in 1989.

It’s a comforting narrative, but the facts say otherwise. Not only is our particular structure extremely rare, the likelihood that it will automatically continue with incremental improvements in perpetuity is even rarer.  In contrast, the vast majority of the population have lived in societies organized in “anti-liberal” regimes at best. As Major Strasser clarified for Ilsa Lund, “human life is cheap in Casablanca.” That applies to most places in most times. The anti-liberal “norm” correlates with limited economic opportunities for all but a handful of the population. As a descriptive term, “authoritarian kleptocracy” cannot fully capture the wide range of illiberal and opportunity-limiting arrangements that have existed through time, but it conveys the general concept.

And then there is our little experiment in classical liberalism. It’s an extreme exception to the norm. It’s only a few hundred years old, still on probation really, compared to the more well-developed varieties of authoritarian rule. It has many unanswered questions, about the nature of the franchise, about direct or representative democracy, about the balance between individual rights and community interests, about the vast array of potential economic and financial attributes. Fukuyama’s declaration was premature. And let’s not confuse luck and skill. The experiment in the US had every possible benefit: natural resources, large oceans keeping enemies at bay, a brilliant founding set, a constant immigration of the industrious, etc.

The experiment remains quite fragile. Ironically, the elections that make classical liberalism distinctive are also a point of extreme vulnerability. The populace can unintentionally elect leaders who end the experiment.  Con-men, demagogues, and would-be autocrats can and have been elected to power. Then the liberal structures vanish or become toothless. Or the outcome can be intentional.  History is filled with instances of explicitly illiberal leaders riding an election wave and then delivering on their promise to change the system. The last century has seen numerous variants of the experiment fail in this way. with profound consequences. In Weimar Germany, the experiment lasted only a decade under the most inauspicious circumstances.  The “other side’s” supposedly liberal “restart” 30 years ago has given way to a robust authoritarian kleptocracy. Elsewhere, in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, many nominally liberal orders have fallen via elections.

The experiment has another weakness, now coming into clear view with our election. And that is the assumption that the electorate itself wishes the experiment to continue. Do they? Does your neighbor support the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, the Constitution as it has been handed down? Some voters probably don’t believe that everyone should have a vote.  Why would they? They believe in their own superiority and are perfectly comfortable changing the system in their favor. In short, the US electorate should understand that elections, by themselves, do not guarantee continuation of the liberal order.

The experiment in the US faces the additional pressure of the clock running out. Recall that societal timelines have been compressing as the world gets smaller. It has become harder and harder to hold on to a dominant position, whether liberal or illiberal. The US has been at the top of the list just over 100 years, since the end of the WWI in 1918. The success of the experiment has probably already added decades to the US’s dominant position, but all great societies experience an aging process, from rise, to dominance, to decline.[1] To think otherwise is ahistorical and naïve. The question then becomes, where does the US sit on the timeline of dominant societies?  Is it, to borrow from baseball, in the 4th or 5th inning, or much later in the game? If one were to look across the Pacific Ocean to China, a pessimistic person might conclude that we are in the bottom of the ninth, with the away team up several runs.

So the 2020 US election takes place against this backdrop of these two monumental challenges: continuing an exceptional liberal political order and maintaining the country’s status as prosperous superpower. The election also occurs when the natural checks and balances that are part of our liberal order have been weakened. The media has followed the direction of the country itself: polarized to the point that it is a participant in the division of the country, not an observer of it.  Today’s leading social media platforms make the yellow press of yesteryear look like amateurs when it comes to riling up the population against one another. And most disturbingly, there is little to no middle ground. The traditional party of self-defined “liberal” or moderate conservatives—where I position myself—has been completely dismantled. The middle has not held, not in economic terms, not in political terms.  The experiment can certainly succeed when people disagree over policy. Indeed, it is far better suited to handling disagreements than authoritarian kleptocracies. But for the experiment to be continued, there needs to be at least some agreement among the citizenry on the utility of the experiment itself, at least some Venn diagram overlap. That is what is missing today.

How do the two candidates rank in light of these concerns? Voters will ultimately be the judge of that. From my perspective, one brings an extreme, explicit and gleeful contempt for the liberal order. He suffers from a DSM-quality narcissism, and it is easy to see him as an authoritarian kleptocrat. To that end, he has dismantled his political party and replaced it with a cult of personality. More distressingly, his supporters appear to be rooting loudly for an end to the liberal order, by violent means if necessary.

The other candidate has a very long record of public service, but not much to show for it. He is a bland character in times that demand greatness. He has no vision, no plan. And his party has more than a few radical supporters who would be equally toxic to the liberal order.  Our system is particularly hamstrung at this time because it is limited—in a practical sense—to just these two options. The two-party system might work well if both parties were able to promote outstanding statesmen and stateswomen to lead the country. That sadly is not the case.

Some of my less moderate, less dismayed friends will say that this is alarmist piffle, that 2020 is just another bare-knuckled election. Nothing more and nothing less. They will claim that I am being unnecessarily melodramatic, writing turgid historical essays forecasting the end of the American century. They will correctly note that I have proven Godwin’s Law about on-line arguments (I referenced Nazi Germany). They will also correctly point out that where the liberal order was washed away, the topsoil was thin. In contrast, England, the US, Canada, etc. and their close liberal-order allies stand on deeper, richer earth. It will not be easily depleted.  (The world’s rising superpower, China, was never seduced by the liberal narrative and makes no excuses for its preference for order and society over freedom and the individual. And few would claim that the world’s biggest democracy, India, is based on a deeply rooted liberalism.)  I hope those critics are right, but I don’t believe they are.  “It can happen here,” to purposefully mis-quote the title of the remarkable Sinclair Lewis novel from 1935 about the US sliding into a fascist state. (Mentioning Lewis constitutes a recent addition to Godwin’s Law.)

In 2018 Jeff Bezos declared that Amazon will eventually fail and even go bankrupt. He reportedly said that his job is to put off that day as long as possible.  I, for one, will be voting to continue the experiment in classical liberalism, not end it. My vote may not matter for the duration or outcome of the experiment, but it will matter to me.

Sept 27, 2020

[1] One of many possible such lists of dominant societies that came to an end: