How can we fight this threat to democracy? We can study history. If we can excavate the forces that threaten and invigorate democratic institutions, then history can do much to help us weather the present crisis, both in the United States and abroad. Over the past 500 years, historical thinking has advanced, expanded and reinvigorated democracy. Why? In part because it identifies the institutions that protect democratic systems. But it also emboldens people to stand up for their values.
One of the core lessons of history is that each of us, no matter what our social status or our race or our gender, make history. Each of us has a role, both individually and collectively, to play in preserving liberty and democracy.
There is nothing new about this approach. In 1512, Niccolò Machiavelli witnessed the collapse of the Florentine Republic. A prominent government official, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and exiled. Then, over the next few years, he and a number of other humanists, all concerned by the shifts toward far more restrictive forms of political power, came together to consider how to preserve republican forms of government. Machiavelli outlined his solution in his “Discourses on the First Ten Decades of Livy.” Through his careful study of history, he discovered that the Romans had preserved their republic only as long as power was not absorbed into a single institution. Roman liberty, Machiavelli argued, depended upon a “mixed government,” a system of checks and balances.
This historical work, now more than 500 years old, long served as a major intellectual bulwark for democratic republics. It played a formative role in the Dutch and English republics of the 17th century. In the 18th century, Machiavelli’s ideas influenced America’s Founding Fathers, above all his warning against allowing any one of the classical forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) to become overly powerful at the expense of the others. This, he believed, was a sure path to tyranny.
The founders agreed. They, therefore, crafted a mixed government. Power would be distributed among the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government, each keeping watch over the other.
Such critical and democratic history has continued to embolden people, especially during periods of tumult and transformation. In a 19th century roiled by the Industrial Revolution, Karl Marx argued for the need to also pay attention to the distribution of economic power, since groups who control the greatest wealth also exercise the greatest political influence. Marx’s ideas continue not only to inspire democratic socialists as they seek to rein in the abuses of corporations and protect the interests of workers, but also to shape the policy priorities of liberal democracies that cannot survive without balancing the conflicting demands of different social groups. In particular, Marx’s insights, and the historical research they inspired, helped guide the union movement of the early 20th century and enabled workers to play a far more active role in shaping policy.
Over the course of the late 20th century, the study of race and gender has brought minorities and women into the historical narrative. By demonstrating that African Americans played a decisive role in ending slavery and spearheaded the civil rights movement, and that women’s political engagements have done much to advance gender equality, these histories have shown that democracy is not simply something that happens in Washington. It belongs to all of us.
Remembering the importance of both individual and collective action is especially important today, because democratic institutions don’t function on their own. As historians have shown, Congress is an organism that requires the pressure of robust political parties to ensure that the body remains responsive to the needs of the citizenry. And, as a long tradition of historical writing has made clear, each of us has a role to play in generating this pressure.
As the past few years have shown, in the midst of the current crisis, the Senate will protect the Constitution only if voters insist that senators make their institutions work for the good of the country. History shows this is possible. At the time of the Watergate crisis, for instance, Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee voted against a president from their own party. Without comparable, nonpartisan courage today — what Machiavelli would have called virtù or decisiveness — we risk drifting further into oligarchy, with our Congress representing the interests of only the wealthiest and most powerful Americans.
To be sure, historical studies in and of themselves will not preserve our democracy. But when fostered in a critical and democratic spirit, they constitute an important piece of what we might call a culture of resistance and liberty.
To survive and thrive, democracy needs a citizenry with an understanding of how economic, social and cultural forces have shaped our political institutions over time. Democracy also requires a citizenry confident that its own actions can make a difference. And without democracy, we will have little chance of victory in the battles from nuclear proliferation and terrorism to immigration crises and climate change that will define the 21st century.