For the past few centuries, the Western world has witnessed a contest of historic visions. On the one side was the dream of the beautiful collective. Human progress was a one-way march toward socialism. People would liberate themselves from religion, hierarchy and oppression. They would build a new kind of society where equality would be the rule, where rational planning would replace cruel competition.
On the other side was the dream of universal democracy. Human progress was seen as a one-way march toward democratic capitalism. Societies would be held together by shared biblical morality. They would be invigorated by economic competition. They would be guided by a democratic state, where power was in the hands of the masses and dispersed through checks and balances.
These two historic visions had amazing appeal. Millions of people dedicated their lives to socialism or communism. The democratic gospel was just an idea, but it shaped American history. The founders believed that they were writing a Constitution for a nation that would herald a new order of the ages. Walt Whitman wrote an essay called “Democratic Vistas” defining the nation’s spiritual mission, while Lincoln celebrated the last, best hope of Earth.
The Cold War settled this contest of historic visions. Democracy won. You would think the gospel of democracy would be triumphant. But, as Mark Lilla has written in an essay called “The Truth About Our Libertarian Age” in the New Republic, the post-Cold War era hasn’t meant the triumph of one ideology; it destroyed the tendency to rely upon big historic visions of any sort.
Lilla argues that we have slid into a debauched libertarianism. Nobody envisions the large sweep of events; we just go our own separate ways making individual choices.
He’s a bit right about that. When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy can last. When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naive.
Lilla’s piece both describes and unfortunately exemplifies the current mood. He argues that the notion of history as a march toward universal democracy is a pipe dream. Arab nations are not going to be democratic anytime soon. The world is an aviary of different systems – autocracy, mercantile despotism – and always will be. Instead of worrying about spreading democracy, we’d be better off trying to make theocracies less beastly.
Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system.
Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with. Young people get fired up by the thought of solar panels in Africa but seem much less engaged in the task of spreading political dignity and humane self-government.
Sure, there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road.