The arc of history is long and tiresome, but the events of the past are never as far away as we would like to believe they are. To understand where we are going, we must reflect on where we’ve been. In doing so, we will find the troubles of the past are not yet laid behind us — but neither are the dreams our ancestors had for us of a better future.
You could say that democracy in America was established 401 years ago, in the year 1619, when the settlers of Jamestown overthrew their English noble lords and founded the General Assembly of Jamestown. Since then, fascism, oligarchy, monarchy, and aristocracy, in all of their various forms throughout history, have been engaged in a war against the more populist American forces of republicanism and democracy. The forces of republicanism and democracy have won over time, pressing forward with a number of key historical accomplishments in the past 401 years: The abolition of nobility; The unification and sovereign independence of the States of America; The abolition of slavery; The rights of the common laborer; Women’s suffrage; The civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Each of these accomplishments came with a price, and each of them required an entrenched battle against the conservative forces of their times, which were, always have been, and probably always will be, the enemies of progressive democracy.
In the 1600s, these were the monarchists loyal to the English aristocracy, and the anti-scientists who believed any scientific progress is against the Will of God. They persecuted those who dissented as “witches”, as anti-science extremists had already been doing for centuries before.
In the 1700s, these were the loyalists, who were also mostly monarchists, believing that a self-governing America cannot exist, and that the uneducated masses must be subject to the Crown of England. Anti-Enlightenment movements pushed back against all the major pro-Enlightenment gains of this century, and no progressive victory came without bloodshed.
In the 1800s, these were the pro-slavery oligarchic elites of the agricultural Antebellum South — a tiny percentile, about 5–10% of all Southerners, who owned nearly all of the slaves, and then brainwashed the median Southern male (who owned 0 slaves) into killing and dying in defense of an institution which never benefited him in the first place. After the war, these were the anti-Reconstructionist forces which sought to unmake all of the progressive gains African-Americans had just won, from voting rights to economic security.
In the 1900s, these were the anti-intelligentsia forces which held mass book burnings, shut down newspapers, and lynched university scholars, and then developed into classical fascism — a new threat which combined the ultra-conservatives of the past and united them under a terrifying new ideology. The 1900s also witnessed the KKK, violent racists who rallied against African-American rights even as those same African-Americans fought in two world wars to defeat this new threat of fascism abroad and to preserve the American republic at home.
In the 2000s, we see elements of all these different previous ultra-conservative movements: We see the anti-scientists from the Late Medieval period, who say that all of science is against the Will of God, that science is just an international liberal conspiracy against conservativism. We see the anti-journalists and the anti-scholars from the classical fascism of the World War era, who disdain education, who say that there is no Truth, who say that all news is fake, who say that universities and newspapers must be shut down. We also see the racists from the 1800s and the 1900s, who say that a multiracial democracy is impossible to achieve, and claim that the races cannot possibly coexist under one nation and one government. We see all of these forces converging now, and to the young American living only in this post-modern moment, it might seem overwhelming to fight all of these battles at once.
The reassuring truth is that we have battled each of these ideologies before — we have been battling them, in fact, for the past four centuries — and we have steadily gained more and more ground against them, striking victory after victory through four hundred years of slow and painful progress.
Progress is never freely granted. At each stage, within each era of history, and within every single generation, progress can only be achieved as a victory against conservative, status-quo forces. By definition, such forces are perpetually opposed to change. That we are now engaged in such an epic, one-in-an-era struggle should not be frightening to Americans. Instead — if this is to be a moment of progress instead of regress — Americans must understand that here is yet another opportunity for democracy to prevail against fascism, for equality to prevail against oligarchy, for science to dispel the myths of cultism, and for freedom to triumph over tyranny.
Yes, it is a scary moment, when all of these ghosts from our American past attack us all at once. It is also a moment of historic opportunity. We are now engaged in the battle, and the outcome is uncertain. We cannot disengage. Americans must charge into the fight, or risk losing what they’ve won.
But in order to win, progressive Americans must move beyond the demonization of their enemy’s ideology. It is never enough to condemn the ghosts of the past four hundred years. Progressives, in each era of history, must also offer a more promising vision of our future. Destruction alone is never sufficient for lasting ideological victory. We must also offer a promise of Creation.
We must define this vision in precise operational terms by answering the questions: How do we build a better system? What kind of country do we want our children to grow up in? How do we guarantee all the things that we want them to have in their lives? What government can we leave to them — will that government be adaptable? Will it be designed to respond to the needs of their era once we are gone, in all the ways that our current system has failed to respond to our own needs?
We must open up these great questions and design answers for each of them. If we fight without a forward-looking vision of Creation, then we are destined to lose that fight, and surrender what we have won over the past four centuries. If we fight as some kind of fragmented, vaguely defined Left, without a central deliberating body or a real vision of forward movement for this country, then we are walking into the fight unarmed.
We already have some preliminary answers to work with. The changes we need to make are sweeping and exhaustive, but they are not as dramatic as the changes that our ancestors made on our behalf in previous eras. This means that, over time, we are coming closer to our ideal vision. To the American living only in this moment, accustomed to a static system, these changes might sound terrifying — but in fact they are the opposite. They are the gains of forward progress. We cannot fear them any more than we feared rebelling against the mightiest kingdom on Earth more than two hundred years ago.
We know, for instance, that we must abolish the Electoral College and overturn Citizens United through a new Constitutional Amendment. We know that we must outlaw gerrymandering on every level. We understand that we must move beyond just eliminating the filibuster — we must abolish the Senate completely, or else redesign the Senate in the fashion of the House, so that both branches of a bicameral legislature are fairly designed to represent the voices of living people, instead of representing empty acres of land inside of arbitrary State lines.
Accomplishing these reforms will dramatically increase structural government responsiveness to the demands of the governed. It is the lack of government responsiveness and accountability to the needs of the governed which is the chief underlying flaw at fault for all of our overlapping crises — and which, generally speaking, is the underlying flaw in the failure of all governments across all eras. A more responsive, representative, and accountable government will prevent such crises as these from re-emerging in future eras. To accomplish that, we need to redefine and rebuild the very system of our government, and nothing less. These are the critical structural reforms that our generation must undertake today in order to prevent far greater conflict in the future.
In doing so, we are destined to confront all of these ghosts from our American past. It is a familiar battle to Americans, even if it does not seem familiar to the people alive at this precise moment. In truth, the anti-scientist from the 1600s and the anti-masker from 2020 are the same individual, occupying two different ages of history, but otherwise unchanged and more or less the same. This individual will always stand in the way of progress. The obstructionist will always obstruct. Progress must always progress. And we must always overcome. History repeats itself, but progress, over time, does occur.
Grounded in the victories of this age-old historical struggle, we do already have some vision to begin working with. To proceed, we will need to rally around this vision, to define its endpoints, its central goals, its underlying thesis (which is true democracy) — and then we must rally American support around this greater calling of true democracy. If we fail to do this, it is no exaggeration to say that nothing lasts forever — not even the hard-won gains in the long view of history.
The good news is that we have fought these battles before, and history teaches us that we keep on winning — as long as we do not give up the fight.