We are currently experiencing the worst pandemic in a century and the most violent protests in fifty years, and potentially face the worst economic downturn in decades. What’s more, all this is happening against the backdrop of one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history. Undoubtedly, these events will have consequences for generations to come.
Public intellectuals, political scientists and other experts have repeatedly made the same prediction: all these phenomena will accelerate trends that are already taking place.
The norms and institutions that underpin our democracy are unraveling. Mechanisms for accountability are decaying. Government shutdowns have become normal. Law enforcement and courts are being politicized. Election results are questioned before votes are cast. Media and experts are mistrusted. Everyday citizens are abandoning civility. We are surrounded by gridlock, corruption and decadence. Our system has not yet collapsed, but signs of fragility abound.
The US political system has been in decay since well before the events of 2020—or even 2016. Washington has been unable to find solutions to issues that concern many citizens: mass shootings, immigration, health care, inequality and climate change. Special interest groups and activists push and pull the government in ways that make it less reflective of popular sovereignty and less responsive to problems.
In Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama argues that our system of checks and balances has become rigid, slow and redundant. Polarization, along with mistrust in leaders and institutions, limits our capacity to respond to crises. A shrinking political center and the presence of fewer undecided voters have given each political party less incentive to seek approval outside its base. The parties are divided to an unprecedented degree, with each denying the other’s legitimacy. Battle lines are no longer drawn over political or economic ideas, but along lines of party affiliation. We are more divided than at any point in recent history and each side sees the other as a threat to the American way of life.
The rise of globalization and interconnectivity, fueled by technological advances, has loosened personal bonds and left society fragmented. Polarization is not a new phenomenon, but now our political divisions echo our social divisions: Americans live in different places, eat different foods and have different ways of life. As a result, Amy Chua writes in Political Tribes, our political tribalism resembles that of developing countries. Social fragmentation threatens to unravel our nation from within, as has happened before to so many other nations and empires.
What will history books say about 2020? Are today’s events part of the natural evolutionary process of change, mere roadblocks in what have been centuries of progress? Or are we taking an irreparable turn for the worse, with consequences greater than anyone can imagine?
We are closer to history than ever before. The past has become more salient, as events in our lives have begun to resemble events from the past. Reading history thus gives us a critical perspective from which to grapple with complex dilemmas in the present.
Making sense of 2020 requires us to correctly identify the events and eras that most resemble our own. Could an economic collapse today recall that of the 1930s, which saw the rise of nationalism, fascism and World War II? Perhaps a depression would lead to financial reforms that bring redistribution of wealth and expansion of human services, just as the Great Depression led to New Deal policies. Could violent protests trigger a law-and-order backlash that lasts for decades, just as the political and social rebellion of the 1960s created a backlash that prompted the War on Drugs and mass incarceration? How is the coronavirus similar to the Spanish flu of 1918, and what can we learn from pandemics of the past?
Historians identify patterns and correlations with prior events and eras to determine what lessons we can derive from history. In The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that cycles in history can lead to predictable changes in society—in short, that history is prophetic. If this is true, an accurate model of periodization could create a better picture of what 2020 looks like and even predict what the future may bring.
Niall Ferguson has suggested that our time most resembles not the 1930s or the 1960s but the sixteenth century. Polarization and iconoclasm today, according to Ferguson, signify disruption of the public sphere, just as they did then. At the time of the Reformation, the invention of the printing press had revolutionized society, just as the internet has ours. New ideas about politics and religion circulated through Europe more quickly than ever before—most notably those of Martin Luther, who challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church. If Ferguson is correct, will our polarized society experience the levels of violence seen during the Reformation?
Are we living through a turning point in history? Do efforts to vandalize and tear down monuments signify a decaying political system? Are we headed toward civil war and the emergence of a new political order? Are we in the beginning, the middle or at the end of an as yet unnamed historical era?
Sheir Berman suggests that we may be in an interregnum—a period of time between two eras. In Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe, she describes an interregnum as an interval “when an old order has died or is decaying but a new one has not yet arisen.” Disorder and violence, she writes, can dominate interregnums, as competing visions struggle to determine what the new order will look like. For instance, during the interwar period that followed World War I, liberals, communists, fascists and anarchists struggled to decide the nature of Europe’s new order. The conflict gave way to World War II and, ultimately, a new political era that began in 1945.
If we are indeed in an interregnum, the crises of 2020 will be meaningful episodes of this transitional era. We have no way of knowing how long this interval will last or how smooth or chaotic it will be. Interregnums can last for decades—even centuries—before a new era begins.
In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla argues that the last interregnum in US history occurred during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a seemingly inconsequential and often overlooked period of US history. Unlike the interwar period, which was marked by chaos and disorder, the late 1970s were relatively peaceful, nestled between two political dispensations. The Roosevelt dispensation was a forty-year era, which started with the New Deal and extended through the Civil Rights Movement, and the Reagan dispensation was a thirty-five-year political era, which began in the 1980s and stretched all the way through to the end of the Obama administration.
These two eras of US history were built on very different visions. Neither vision was shared by everyone, but understanding them helps elucidate general political, social and cultural trends. The Roosevelt dispensation offered a vision for addressing poverty and expanding rights to workers and minorities, whereas the Reagan dispensation engendered a vision of self-reliance and minimal government. The Carter presidency, according to Lilla, was a transitional period between these competing visions. The transition was smooth and peaceful.
Will today’s struggle between competing visions be more like the interwar period or the late 1970s? Much is at stake in this year’s election, but, regardless of who wins, we will probably fester amid political decay and polarization for some time, for neither candidate embodies a vision that will inaugurate a new era. Nor is there yearning from below for a unifying vision. Negative partisanship is a feature of this era, not a bug. The immediate prognosis is gloomy.
Nevertheless, we can overcome 2020 if we learn the lessons of history and work to build a new vision of the future. Things are happening today that have not happened for generations, but none of them are unprecedented: history records far worse pandemics, depressions and social unrest. Our nation could become stronger and more united in the face of these challenges. 2020 gives us an opportunity to make the changes needed to usher in a new era.