I’ve been thinking recently that our democracy has been showing signs of wear and tear. It’s easy to think, “Oh everything is going to be OK” or “OMG! We are going to turn into Mad Max!” Historically, there are plenty of examples of democracies which have fallen into dictatorship. Usually, people didn’t see it coming at the time. I’ve been playing with a list of times the US was in trouble and the future of the nation was in serious question just to get a feel of how our nation has developed in the last 230 years. Sorted from least risky to most.
World War II
Seriously, if Dunkirk had gone differently, the Nazis would have conquered all of Europe. Even as the US entered the War, it was far from a sure thing. I put this as least risky because we were protected by a vast ocean. Still, this was a serious threat global threat.
War of 1812
The British burned Washington DC and the White House to the ground. President Madison fled the city. Can you imagine someone invading the US and doing that today? We were a fledgling little country. It was hard enough gaining independence. This little war in 1812 taught us that we need a military and a navy and need to take defense seriously. We were almost destroyed before we even had a chance to grow.
This was during the heights of the cold war and suddenly, we were at each others throats about being a communist, even though most Americans didn’t even understand what communism was. It was a scary time to be an independent thinker. We could have possibly slid into a dictatorship who vowed to eradicate the enemy within. McCarthyism was a closest moment to turning down a very dark path.
The Great Depression
25% unemployment and mass poverty. We have had financial panics. (Many many actually) Each panic has strained our system. However, the Great Depression put the nation in such peril that a wrong turn would have led to internal revolution and a military dictatorship – similar to France during their revolution. Poverty and unemployment are a dangerous combination.
The Trump Era
We all know what is happening right now. I would suggest listening to Against the Rules, a podcast by Michael Lewis. It is about how the referees in our society are having alot of trouble these days. Another podcast posits that modern technology and information is actually making us trust “experts” less and less. We don’t trust scientists, journalists, judges, umpires, regulatory bodies, doctors or other people who are supposed to know wise answers to our tough questions. Trump is a symptom of this trend, not the cause. He stokes conspiracy theories and enemies all around us. If we aren’t careful, we could have a catastrophic outcome.
The Civil War
The Civil War was a terrifyingly risky moment of our democracy. We thrashed and fought in a way that has never been duplicated. We formed armies and sent them into battle. It was brutal and I think the South has never truly reconciled with losing. Racism became ensconced, not destroyed through this process. Slavery and racism are so baked into our culture that I fear it will be our undoing. The North nearly lost the war and I think the reverberations of that event still affect us today.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
I put this as the number one crisis because of the possible outcome. If the North lost the Civil War, we would have ended up as two countries. If the Cuban Missile Crisis had gone sour, we may have destroyed civilization in a nuclear holocaust. The stakes were never higher. Thank God, cool heads prevailed and we avoided World War III and a nuclear winter.
I didn’t include the Teapot Dome Scandal or Nixon’s Watergate conspiracy because I am less familiar with them and how risky they were to ending the “American Experiment”. I am sure there are other episodes. In fact, if you add up all of the major negative events in our history, they average one every decade. We have had a turbulent history!
The last 50 years (since the Cuban Missile Crisis) have been the least risky of our history. Yes, we have had scandals and wars, but none seemed existential. It is only the last few years that the risk factors have been on the rise.
History seems to favor our resiliency. The American Experiment seems to have tough armor. We have survived through great turmoil. I have optimism that we will get through this period and be the better for it.