During the 2016 presidential campaign, I sometimes felt as if I was relearning world history only through the frantic and chaotic filters of CNN commentators or the measured and concerned columns written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and other venerable news outlets. It took me a while to realize that reteaching people like me wasn’t all that was going on. I also was being whipped into a frenzy by fearmongering on the right and angst on the left.
I was a bored student of history when I was younger. There were so many other things I was interested in. I learned the bare minimum, sat for my exams, and moved on to music, then geology, and then maps. All three were far removed from the dusty study of history.
The exception to my dissing of history was my intense study of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was personal and the stories coming out of it were so horribly compelling that an impressionable younger teenager like me easily got sucked into all things Holocaust. There was a wealth of books written for young adults about victims and survivors and life in concentration camps or in hiding. The most absorbing were the personal accounts of people (some my age!) who endured unthinkable violence, yet still hung on to their humanity.
What I remember most of my studies of the Holocaust in the 1970s is that they were focused mainly on the victims: their lives before the Holocaust, their communities all over Europe, the horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis, and their eventual freedom and resettlement if they survived. We studied Jewish victims almost exclusively, although peripherally we understood that other populations were treated just as badly. What was left out of these teachings for the most part were details about the political and economic setting of Europe after the devastation of World War I, the rise of extremism and the use of scapegoating, and the other societal woes of the times. I don’t blame my teachers, I just don’t think there was that much written yet about the rest of that catastrophe that was suitable for younger readers.
Now we are 70 years past that awful period in world history. Other nations have fallen under authoritarian rule, some have endured civil wars, and large populations continue to be decimated by genocide. The United States, however, has experienced none of that since 1945. Yet.
We have now witnessed three years of norms being turned on their head with no repercussions. I fear that democratic institutions are being eroded away, that we are undoing decades of social progress, that we are too politically polarized, and that we are running the risk of a civil war. I’m worried beyond what might be considered reasonable.
At some point late last year, I could no longer tolerate being yelled at by TV commentators and wished they would focus on solutions, not finger pointing. I wanted a factual explanation of how we got into this mess and a road map for how to get out of it.
Just as I thought my anxiety was going to get the best of me, along came professor Timothy Snyder and his short but stunning book, “On Tyranny; Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” I devoured it in a day or so and almost immediately felt my cortisol levels decrease as I realized that his book was a cure of sorts.
The “lessons” are actually 20 action items that any citizen can implement (once you calm down and start taking care of yourself again by eating, exercising, and sleeping normally, of course). Don’t worry, you won’t be performing them in a vacuum; Snyder provides a brief context and background for each one so that we do not blindly put trust in his instructions. We need to understand the backgrounds so that we are not destined to repeat history (as Edmund Burke warned).
I found that I was already doing some of what Snyder instructed. Consider “contribute to good causes.” Like many Americans, after a disaster, I identify credible charities and contribute to them. I also have some ongoing favorites that I’ve donated to all my life. Now I have an even more important reason to do so on a regular basis: preserving the democratic value of freely choosing where to donate. Citizens in oppressed countries don’t have that luxury; in the twentieth century, authoritarian leaders suppressed institutions of civil society such as charities.
Another instruction is to “make eye contact and small talk.” As the governments of Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union became more brutal in the early twentieth century, citizens went from point A to point B and tried not to interact with anyone in between because they feared each other. A smile or a gesture of kindness can go a long way toward preserving civil society. I find this easy to do now, even under stress.
Part history book, part self-help guide, I refer to this book often. I remind myself that even as I go about my day, I can still do something to help preserve our democracy.
That book, however, inspired me to learn more about how democracies failed in other countries and how their failures compare to what might be starting to happen here. My thirst for history lessons was growing! “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, was published just a few months ago and has satisfied my quest for historical and current international examples.
The authors focus on the failure of democracies in countries such Argentina, Hungary, Peru, Venezuela, and others, in detail. These are countries we haven’t heard much about, either during our school days or in discussions of current events, because news of their demise has been overshadowed by other things.
It’s important to note that Nazi Germany is also mentioned frequently and is given equal treatment as an example of failure. Whereas comparisons between the United States now and Nazi Germany then are useful and must be made, if we include the stories of other countries and their fates, then our current cause for alarm is more clearly validated. If you fear that our country is in huge trouble, this book will certainly feed your narrative and give you the proper historical context to argue with others who are in denial.
The authors also make good use of imagery. They portray our democracy as a highway spanning over 200 years and constrained by political norms in the form of guardrails. The political norms of mutual toleration (Republicans and Democrats working together on behalf of the country despite their philosophical differences) and forbearance (Republicans and Democrats exercising restraint despite their philosophical differences) have previously kept our democracy from crashing through the guardrails at perilous times in our history.
The authors discuss periods of our history when the guardrails have been weakened by figures such as Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and Newt Gingrich, but they held, and we are reminded about the hows and whys. They devote just one chapter to Trump and the rise of extremism in this country. The current polarization we are experiencing over race issues and economic disparities, fueled by Trumpism, has significantly weakened the guardrails and it will take all of us from keeping our democracy from going over a cliff. The final chapter counsels us on how to prevent this from happening and reminds us, sadly, that we are no longer the envy of the world.