There is an implicit notion that history must either represent a cyclical order that is endlessly repeated or a linear progression of development. Plato saw all political order as vulnerable to an inevitable decay. Indeed, he developed his own cycle of political decay from Aristocracy into eventual Tyranny. It is not necessary to agree with his account to recognize some truth to the impermanence of political organization. Yet, this approach runs counter to the Marxist account of a linear progression towards utopia.
Francis Fukuyama took heat for his declaration of an end to history. The publication of his work was followed just five years later by Fareed Zarkaria’s forecast of the Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Yet, Fukuyama’s thesis never depended on the proximity of the date. Rather, his argument simply requires the belief in the inevitability of the political culmination into liberal democracy. He provides an optimistic historical account where liberal democracy becomes its inevitable conclusion.
But this explanation leaves the reader unsatisfied. The United States is sometimes called the world’s oldest liberal democracy. Yet, its process of democratization extends into the sixties with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Even in the past generation, the world has redefined liberal rights to include homosexual marriage. And debates over transsexual rights remain unresolved. The goalpost for liberal democracy has been extended as the expectations of liberalism and democracy have been expanded. Indeed, the few liberal democracies of the nineteenth century would not have been considered liberal nor democratic according to today’s standards.
It is a grave mistake to consider liberal democracy as the culmination of the historical process, because our understanding of liberalism and democracy are redefined for each new generation. It seems liberal democracy may represent a mathematical limit where we can get close but never achieve its conclusion. Moreover, the history of the world has rarely reflected progress toward democratization. The last three hundred years represent an historical anomaly. The world did not begin as a series of autocracies but decayed into a centralization of political authority over time. The Greek city-states fought off the Persian Empire only to become subdued by Macedon. The Roman Republic slipped into a decline toward empire until it was fulfilled under Augustus although the ultimate culmination of imperial power occurred under Diocletian. In France, the Estates General was a Medieval Institution that Absolutist Monarchy had abandoned. Democratization in Europe began as an effort to reclaim Medieval rights and privileges from a modern conception of Absolutism.
The Journal of Democracy revisits the meaning of Tiananmen Square in its current issue. A key theme has been historical memory. The massacre at Tiananmen will be thirty years ago on June 4th. Censorship in China has silenced talk about this seminal moment in Chinese history. Yet its efforts to erase history have emboldened a new generation of Chinese activists who do not understand the potential for brutality of the Communist regime. Tiananmen was a landmark even because the response of the CCP was unthinkable. For a generation, dissenters feared the response of the CCP. But a new generation has come of age who lacks the historical memory. Does this ensure history is destined to repeat itself once again?
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