Back in 1989 Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the “end of history” in a famous National Interest article that he later expanded into a 1992 book entitled The End of History And the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis was a provocative one. With the collapse of global communism, the last true ideological challenger to Western liberal democracy had joined fascism in the dustbin of history, signaling the end of humanity’s sociopolitical evolution. Fukuyama maintained that history was not over in the sense that things of importance in the world would stop happening, but that we had nonetheless reached the pinnacle of social and political development in the form of liberal democracy.
This triumph of liberal values meant the ideological struggles that had served as an engine of conflict and change for centuries were now largely over. It didn’t take long for Fukuyama’s argument to become a historical footnote, with the appearance of alternative theories, including Samuel Huntington’s famous Clash of Civilizations thesis. The rise of neo-authoritarian states in the 90s also helped to throw cold water on the idea that there was a final liberal triumph over authoritarianism.
I mention Fukuyama’s intriguing, but naïve thesis, because his linear portrayal of history as leading to a final socio-political endpoint strikes me as incredibly relevant to the gun control issue. Gun rights activists see history as a constant struggle between rulers and ruled. The human experience has not been a ceaseless march of social and political progress, but rather a roller coaster ride, with freedoms gained, lost, and regained.
Empires rose and fell. Some were better than their predecessors, some were worse. I doubt anyone can claim human freedom and material well-being were advanced by the collapse of ancient Rome, with its recognition of fundamental rights for citizens and robust legal system. In time, however, progress returned as the wisdom of Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe combined. Still, life wasn’t easy for most people. Even in the 18th century at the height of the Age of Enlightenment most human beings in the world lived in grinding poverty with their basic human rights unrecognized by those who governed them. It really wasn’t until the latter part of the 20thcentury that liberal-democracies became relatively common.
Even today most people live under some form of authoritarianism (political or social). Many democracies fail or enjoy only intermittent success, as democrats and autocrats continue to prosecute a long-term struggle in which freedom sometimes gains ground and then promptly surrenders it. Think of Austria, Germany, and Spain in the 1930s. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s. Think of Thailand in the 2000s. Think of Pakistan’s swings from civilian to military rule and back again.
Even supposedly well-established liberal democracies cross the line into tyranny from time to time. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the civil war, imprisoning without trial government opponents for exercising their right of free speech. The United States government imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans during WWII because it feared they might commit crimes against the state. The anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s and the anti-terrorism hysteria of the 2000s only further reinforces my view that our sociopolitical system is more fragile than the Leftist punditry is capable of acknowledging.
Of course many on the Left were singing a different tune during the Bush years. They correctly pointed to the Patriot Act, among other initiatives, as evidence of dangerously expanding government power and (less accurately) the “fascist” tendencies of President Bush. However, now that their guy is in office executing Americans overseas without trial and hiding provisions for martial law in a defense appropriations bill, everything’s cool.
With regard to the gun issue, our opponents suffer from some combination of historical amnesia, a general lack of imagination, and/or cognitive dissonance as they laugh derisively at any suggestion that an American government could move in an authoritarian direction, even after spending eight years engaging in fear-mongering every time George Bush held a press conference. And then after they call you a “nut” or an “extremist” they return to their iPhone where they read stories about Koch Brother conspiracies to subvert democracy and corporate control of government.