Last year, when I saw that Walter Mondale had died, I mentioned it to The Girl as she walked into the kitchen. Her response: “Who?” I raised an eyebrow, but it made sense; she was born in 2004, so he had mostly left public life a generation before she was born.
She’s wildly bright with a steel-trap memory, but she was also born in 2004. In the manner of young people, she confronts the external world with relatively little awareness of what’s new and what’s eternal. It’s all just sort of … there, all at once. At her age, I was the same way. In high school, in the ’80s, I thought of the ’60s as a bygone era not much removed from the Paleolithic. In retrospect, it was as far from me then as 2002 is now. I remember 2002. Heck, I remember 1982. That’s as far from me now as 1942 was from me then, which is, of course, preposterous. As far as my ninth-grade mind was concerned, color hadn’t yet been invented in 1942. Men still wore suits and hats to baseball games. It was a different world, connected to my own only by fossil records.
I remember the jolt in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. It was the first time in my awareness that I lived across a historical divide. Sept. 11 had a similar feel, though it was much more visceral, being so close to home. Jan. 6, 2021, was the most jarring, though. It carried a level of threat unlike the others.
Growing up in the wake of the boomers, the story I was told—and had no immediately obvious reason to disbelieve—was that American democracy was rock-solid, the envy of the world and getting better all the time. Yes, there was unfinished work to do, but we knew what it was, and we could be confident that it would get done. The contrast with the communist powers was striking enough to lend some plausibility to the story. The Whiggish interpretation of American history was easy enough: over time, the range of people included in public life grew. The ’60s—that long, bygone era—were all about inclusion, so that took care of that. The fad for declaring the “end of history” in 1989 came from that story.
(I’ve long suspected that the South Park and Maxim wave of the late ’90s came from white men who had grown up in very white settings, hearing white boomer teachers wax eloquent at them about the civil rights movement in the same way for years. It became a sort of catechism. Absent context, the catechism became an easy target for mockery. That style of humor has aged as badly as it has because it’s impossible to ignore context anymore.)
When the underpinnings seem solid—when any danger seems purely theoretical—it’s easy to tune out warnings as alarmist or scolding. When your entire historical awareness consists of a largely undifferentiated “past” that might as well have happened on another planet, it’s easy to assume that the structures that exist now are basically eternal. Yes, we have good days and bad days, but the basic questions are settled.
But they’re not. And the arrangements that rely on those basic questions are much more fragile than they might look to someone seeing them for the first time.
I was in college before I heard anyone point out—correctly!—that in the scope of human history, democracies are very much the exception. They’re rare, and usually short-lived. They’ll likely end long before history does. The idea of the rule of law—that even leaders are subject to the law—is also historically unusual. Both are contrivances—“social constructions,” as we used to say—and neither is guaranteed. They last only as long as we decide to make them last.
Eric Mlyn’s thoughtful piece in Inside Higher Ed Monday gets the situation right, but I think the causes are deeper. To the extent that colleges are about education, as opposed to indoctrination on one hand or mere job training on the other, they should provide context. The basic institutions of American representative democracy are under sustained assault, and the outcome isn’t preordained. Democracies have fallen before. Reactions and counterrevolutions are regular features of history. Racism didn’t end with the civil rights legislation of the ’60s.
The issue isn’t so much about favoring one party or the other. It’s about favoring conditions in which multiple parties can exist and compete meaningfully at all. It’s about reminding people that the rule of law doesn’t occur in nature; it’s a choice that has to be made over and over again. (For that matter, middle classes don’t occur in nature either, but that’s another post.) That requires, among other things, conveying a sense of historical fragility. What has been won can be lost, and quickly.
Today’s 18-year-olds have seen a lot more history than I had at their age. They’re more diverse and more connected than my cohort was. They’re probably better equipped for these lessons than my friends and I were. We owe it to them to teach those lessons well, even if they never learn about Walter Mondale.