I hear an undercurrent of assumption in much of the current liberal rhetoric—a mythology that progressives can best do without. That is the assumption that our present turn toward authoritarianism has somehow only temporarily interrupted American social progress. This assumption is more of that good ol’ “onward and upward forever” mythology that progressives have held onto for generations.
It is time to stop fantasizing. Incredulity at authoritarianism is merely another instance of American exceptionalism, and another instance of the idea of progress that pervades Western thinking, right and left. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mythologies all tell a linear story. There is a creation story; a redemption story; a story of “god’s plan;” and a story of the end of time.
For liberals, one outcome of these mythologies is the pervasive idea that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Yes, there is some empirical evidence that we humans have improved on some measures of conscience and well-being. (See Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature.) But the assumption of inevitable social progress is a trap. Just ask the 48 Jewish Centers that received bomb threats in the month of January.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder has just published a timely little book: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Dr. Snyder is an expert on Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and not coincidentally knows a good deal about authoritarianism and tyranny.
Snyder offers three frames for how people tend to view political reality: the “politics of inevitability,” the “politics of eternity,” and historical perspective.
In the US, liberals tend to fall into the “politics of inevitability.” (Note that this is my extrapolation, not Snyder’s suggestion.) Liberals tend to think that progress is inevitable—and furthermore liberals assume they know what that progress looks like. This is misplaced optimism based in American exceptionalism and bad theology, and it adds up to an incredulous “it can’t happen here” attitude.
In the US, conservatives tend to fall into what Snyder calls the “politics of eternity.” This is a fantasy world in which there was a never-world time when America was great. The further assumption is that we can get back to that greatness by doing X, Y, and Z—cherry-picked from scriptures. Conservatives tend to think that returning to this past that never was will return everything to a conservative vision—in other words, they assume they know what “great” looks like. This attitude exhibits the bad theology that god sheds his grace on nations that act in certain traditionalist Jewish, Christian, and Muslim ways.
Both modes of seeing lead to frustration, political dead-ends, and violence.
Snyder claims that those in his third category, those with historical understanding, “make” history rather than fall victim to it. These people can define what the American project is and how that vision might be advanced.
Bad theology leads to dangerous politics. The dominant theology among the framers of the US Constitution was Deism, the idea that “god” built the universe like a watch, then wound it up, and let it go. Deists assumed that the role of human beings was to learn the workings of the clock and conform to its laws. They did not believe that “god” would suddenly appear and fix a busted mainspring. Or a busted human government.
To the contrary, dominant theologies in the US today—even the pervasive and predominant Process Theology preferred by liberals—tend toward the thought that “god” has “the whole world in his hands.” The US Constitution is not designed to function in that sort of fantasy land.
Bad theology. Bad politics. Wishful thinking.