It Always Happens

"What We Get Wrong About America's Crisis of Democracy" by Adam Gopnik is subtitled "The interesting question is not what causes authoritarianism but what has ever suspended it." Gopnik's short essay in the New Yorker turns the issue around, and points out that the normal state of things is what we see as today's catastrophe.

It always happens. That's Gopnik's refrain, quoting a line in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. It always happens. Gopnik writes:

... Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise–that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that ... it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy. ...


... The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it. We constantly create post-hoc explanations for the ascent of the irrational. The Weimar inflation caused the rise of Hitler, we say; the impoverishment of Tsarism caused the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the inflation was over in Germany long before Hitler rose, and Lenin came to power not in anything that resembled a revolution–which had happened already under the leadership of far more pluralistic politicians–but in a coup d'état by a militant minority. Force of personality, opportunity, sheer accident: these were much more decisive than some neat formula of suffering in, autocracy out. ..."

and he concludes:

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy–that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate. Some of these things won't be achievable, but all are worth pursuing–with the knowledge that, even if every box on our wonkish wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. The only way to stave off another [failure] is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off.

The rule of law, the protection of rights, and the procedures of civil governance are not fixed foundations, shaken by events, but practices and habits, constantly threatened, frequently renewable. "A republic if you can keep it," Benjamin Franklin said. Keeping a republic is a matter not of preserving it like pickles but of working it like dough–which sounds like something you'd serve alongside very weak tea. But it is the essential diet to feed our democracy if we are to make what always happens, for a little while longer, happily unhappen.

... and – generalizing – the same holds for the current crisis in public health, and even more broadly the current crisis in deeply caring for one another. Loving-kindness is the exception. Acceptance is the exception. Selfishness and separation are so seductive, so nearly inevitable. It always happens.

(cf Why So Bad (2002-10-20), Authorized vs Forbidden (2005-07-03), Viewpoint Convergence (2012-07-24), ...) - ^z - 2020-01-05