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Henningsen: Fatal Attraction

Americans have a fatal attraction for other people’s revolutions. Perhaps because we believe ours was so successful - so right - we see ourselves, too, on the streets and in the squares, challenging oppression in the name of freedom. We’re incurable optimists: all popular risings are like ours and will end as ours did – with the triumph of liberal democracy.

Then we’re often horrified by the result.

This isn’t new. Jefferson advised the French early in their revolution, Thomas Paine helped write their new constitution, and both were traumatized by what developed – Paine barely escaped the guillotine. Over and over Americans projected their own motives onto the actions of others and felt betrayed when things didn’t go as expected. Consider the list: Latin American revolutions of the 1820’s; the Russian Revolution of 1917; Vietnam in 1945 (they even used our declaration of independence); Cuba in the 50’s; various color revolutions after the Soviet Union’s collapse; the Arab Spring. In every case, high hopes for American-style democracies were dashed.

Why continue this?

Perhaps we take democracy for granted. It’s a widely shared aspiration, but takes practice to get right. Few possess a political context conducive to such effort. Consider the American colonists. They’d been conducting internal affairs in colonial assemblies for over a century. Their revolution was indeed dramatic, but Americans had learned the political behavior necessary to make it work.

In contrast France, Russia, and China are good examples of how people accustomed to centuries of autocracy can’t make a quick transition to participatory political behavior. As the short-lived Morsi presidency in Egypt demonstrates, too often those aspiring to democracy fall prey to majoritarianism – believing winners may do as they please.

Perhaps we assume democracy is inevitable. We forget that our founders didn’t intend to create a democracy – which they regarded as mob rule – and were horrified by the development of party politics, the rapid extension of the franchise, and the rise of common folk to positions of power.

And we forget that the American republic, too, had its growing pains – a false start in the Confederation, a conservative counter-revolution at the Constitutional Convention, and a pitched battle over the nature of the new federal government during the 1790’s, to say nothing of the Civil War.

When we persist in believing that revolutions should result in the quick and easy development of democracy we’re blind to cultural and historical reality.

It’s fine to be optimistic, but we’ve got to be realistic too. All revolutions aren’t alike; democracy isn’t an automatic outcome; and when it doesn’t appear that isn’t necessarily a betrayal. It’s an invitation for those who believe in it to work harder.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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