“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”
That’s Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s message in his new book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. If we can learn anything from the past, it’s that democracies can collapse. It happened in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and then again after the Soviets began spreading authoritarian communism in the 1940s.
American democracy is no less vulnerable to tyrannical forces, Snyder warns. “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
The short 126-page treatise – written in reaction to Donald Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office – looks at failed European democracies to highlight the “deep sources of tyranny” and offer ways to resist them:
Do not obey in advance. Defend institutions. Believe in truth. Contribute to good causes. Listen for dangerous words. Be as courageous as you can.
Inspired as it may be by Trumpian politics, On Tyranny is useful guide for defending democratic governance in any political era. As Snyder notes, looking to past democracies’ failures is an American tradition. As they built our country, the Founding Fathers considered the ways ancient democracies and republics declined. “The good news is that we can draw upon more recent and relevant examples than ancient Greece and Rome,” Snyder writes. “The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.”
The actionable steps for defending our democratic institutions make up the bulk of On Tyranny, but Snyder’s big critique is of Americans’ relationship to history. It’s not just that we don’t know any; it’s that we’re dangerously anti-historical.
In the epilogue, Snyder observes that until recently the politics of inevitability – “the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy” – dominated American political thinking. After communism in eastern Europe ended, and the salience of its, and fascism’s and Nazism’s, destruction lessened, the myth of the “end of history” took hold. This misguided belief in the march toward ever-greater progress made us vulnerable, Snyder writes, because it “opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.”
Snyder isn’t being particularly shrewd here. Commentators have explicitly endorsed versions of the politics of inevitability. After the Cold War, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote the aptly titled article “The End of History?” (which was later expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man) arguing that history may have indeed reached its final chapter. In the “End of History?” he writes the following:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
This is a teleological conception of the world – it views history as unfolding according to some preordained end or purpose. Marxism had its own teleology, the inevitable rise of a socialist utopia, based on Karl Marx’s materialist rewriting of Hegelian dialectics. After Marxism took a geopolitical blow in the early 1990s, Fukuyama reclaimed Hegelianism from Marx and argued that mankind’s ideological evolution had reached its true end: Liberal democracy had triumphed, and no alternatives could possibly replace it.
But Snyder isn’t referring just to the prophecies of erudite theorists like Fukuyama. He’s pointing the finger at everyone. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he writes, Americans and other liberals “drew the wrong conclusion: Rather than rejecting teleologies, we imagined that our own story was true.” We fell into a “self-induced intellectual coma” that constrained our imaginations, that barred from consideration a future with anything but liberal democracy.
A more recent way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. It’s historically oriented, but it has a suspect relationship with historical facts, Snyder writes. It yearns for a nonexistent past; it exalts periods that were dreadful in reality. And it views everything through a lens of victimization. “Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation.”
National populists endorse the politics of eternity. They revere the era in which democracies seemed most threatened and their rivals, the Nazis and the Soviets, seemed unstoppable. Brexit advocates, the National Front in France, the leaders of Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and the current American president, Snyder points out, all want to go back to some past epoch they imagine having been great.
“In the politics of eternity,” Snyder writes, “the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures.” And the emphasis on national victimhood dampens any urge to self-correct:
Since the nation is defined by its inherent virtue rather than by its future potential, politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. How can we even think of reform when the enemy is always at the gate?
If the politics of inevitability is like an intellectual coma, the politics of eternity is like hypnosis: We stare at the spinning vortex of cyclical myth until we fall into a trance – and then we do something shocking at someone else’s orders.
The risk of shifting from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity is real, Snyder writes. We’re in danger of passing “from a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.” When the myth of inevitable progress is shattered, people will look for another way of making sense of the world, and the smoothest path is from inevitability to eternity. “If you once believed that everything turns out well in the end, you can be persuaded that nothing turns out well in the end.”
The only thing that stands in the way of these anti-historical orientations, Snyder says, is history itself. “To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something.”