One great temptation of looking back on history is to assume that historical events and patterns were inevitable. And that we are all just oblivious, passive inheritors of cultures, tribes, traditions, religions, politics, and belief systems beyond our awareness, understanding or control.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union created a triumphant assumption in America that capitalism, free markets, globalization, and democracy would inevitably win out over communism, nationalism, over-regulation, tariffs, trade wars, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s 1991 book, The End of History and the Last Man, exemplified this too-optimistic worldview.
It reflected the zeitgeist of a generation, but more than 25 years later, we are seeing a return to authoritarianism, a decline in democracy, a renewed interest in tariffs and trade wars, nationalism instead of globalism, all aided by new surveillance technologies. Russia, for example, may have repudiated communism, but fascist philosophy is back in style in Russia.
Dr. Timothy Snyder, Yale University historian, suggests in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America that many of us have been sleepwalking through history for a generation, lulled by a belief in the inevitability of progress for capitalism, free markets, and democracy. A whole generation saw no reason to study history — especially pre-world-war history. With the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of the European Union, history was no longer relevant, according to this theory. Europe had clearly learned its lessons about the need for economic cooperation instead of nationalistic competition and the building of empires that clash. With capitalism generating so much more wealth than communism, with the U.S.’s overwhelming technological and defense advantage, Americans easily outspent the Soviets into oblivion. There were no other lessons we needed to learn from history, or so many thought.
The advance of progress was almost inevitable and America’s birthright. But the inevitably of progress turned out to be a fraud, as we began to learn in 2001. We endured the 9/11 terrorist attack — what seemed to be a bolt out of the blue — the disaster of the Iraq war, mass unemployment or under-employment in the Great Recession, followed by stagnant wages, and growing income inequality, even as the economy grew again.
The election of Barack Obama created a temporary optimism, a belief that he could be a transformative president like Franklin D. Roosevelt. But reaction against him after just two years led to Republicans taking the US House and blocking many of his initiatives.
Even at the end of his presidency, Obama promoted an overly optimistic theory of historical inevitability. “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” he said in attempting to cheer up dislocated Democrats.
Dr. Snyder disagrees, based on his study of European and Russian history. History is not an arc, it does not bend, and justice is not inevitable, he says.
Many citizens concluded in the 2016 election that loss of the American Dream — if you work hard, you can get ahead — must be someone’s fault. Politicians must have misled or lied to them. They were victims. They cheered as new politicians pointed fingers at domestic and foreign enemies and threats.
Snyder has seen all this before: the 1930s. He fears that a new tyranny may overtake the West.