Maybe nothing’s going to change. Maybe both Sanders and Trump will lose their bids for the nomination, and we’ll all be back where we started. That time after the New Hampshire results came in, leaving journalists and political operatives to trot out stale jokes like Mencken’s crack about democracy being about the people getting what they want, good and hard—maybe one day that will be nothing more than a memory.
Or maybe not. Like a fair few conservatives, I had long since ceased to believe in either the debased or the genuine versions of the thesis advanced by Francis Fukuyama in a 1989 article and subsequent book, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama was understood by detractors to have argued that liberal democracy had finally triumphed over its enemies, but his actual proposal, heavily qualified, was more that liberal democracy had demonstrated itself to be without peer in its claim to universal legitimacy. A lot of people believed something like this in recent decades, and a lot of people still do, including prominent figures on the center-left. Liberals once enjoyed mocking Fukuyama because of his association with late Cold War hawks and perceived American triumphalism—but when John Kerry condemns Putin for behaving “in 19th century fashion” or when Barack Obama talks about the arc of history bending toward justice, they are basically affirming some version of what Fukuyama suggested in ’89.
But when I started to doubt my youthful notion that the end of history was nigh, I had foreign threats to democracy in mind. Radical Islam, Putinism, the market-harnessing authoritarianism of China were all causes for concern, though it still seemed likely that liberal democracies would hold the line, and that with prudence and vigilant statesmanship they could even advance it a little each generation, to the benefit of all.
Domestic politics did not seem to pose any remotely comparable challenges. But then Tuesday night a socialist and a populist won the Democratic and Republican primaries in New Hampshire, each by a huge margin.
The causes for this development are many. Some are strategic in nature: the failure of elites to address the economic stagnation and social collapse of communities across the country, which affects both parties’ races; the indoctrination of college students in fanciful, toxic leftism, which helps Sanders’ candidacy; the evolution of a civic culture where the comic timing and shamelessness that are helpful to a reality TV star are equally useful for a candidate for high office, which helps … well, you know.
Some of the causes are tactical. Among Democrats, fear of the Clinton machine kept other viable liberals out of the race, and it is now very, very late for anyone to ride to the rescue in any way other than as a third party candidate, which could very easily cost liberals the election. Among Republicans, even now candidates are maneuvering with an eye to be the last man standing next to Trump, on the theory that, late in the race, voters will consolidate for them. It’s an extreme version of the prisoner’s dilemma: everyone’s selfish, and everyone loses!
Nor is it in any way reassuring that the United States is not alone in dealing with newly emboldened extremes: the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or the populist governments that have come to power in Poland and Hungary are only signs that European elites are failing, too. And it is true that something like Sanders’ version of socialism has long been part of the liberal democratic picture in Europe. Also not reassuring. Europe’s social democracies could (barely) afford their welfare states because America provided for their defense.
The fact is Americans haven't experienced real domestic politics in at least a generation, and arguably longer. We have dealt with fundamental questions of principle within that period, sure, but even then—as with the recent passage of Obamacare—the reforms were backed by a major party’s leadership and all of the associated institutional infrastructure, they came after years of preparation, and they did, in some sense, avoid extremes: in the Obamacare case, the option of single-payer. We have flirted with questions of electoral legitimacy, as in Bush v. Gore, but in that case Gore bowed out before a true crisis developed.
What happens when someone holds the presidency—an office immensely empowered within the last century—who lacks even the shame of Barack Obama, or has even less concern for the Constitution or the courts? That would be real politics, and the learning curve for those who thrive today in Washington would be very steep. Real politics are exciting and dangerous. In real politics, losers actually lose, and fundamental rights are not beyond question. The situation becomes fluid. People can drown.
America’s post-Cold War holiday from history has long been known to be over in terms of our international affairs. This may be the year it comes to an end at home.