Our four-year flirtation with the autocrat Donald Trump was a scary affair, eh? We knew when we started it could mean trouble, but what did we know about his kind back in 2015? How much harm could a reality show host and real estate mogul do in our White House? Now he’s dealt our democracy a battering, two months of belligerent lying, an attempted election reversal, and finally a mobbing. To our credit, in November We the People (most of us) sent him packing. Then in February our Senate considered whether to issue a restraining order on the man, and, like the good wife, chose not to. We know he’ll stalk us. Is there a shelter around here for battered democracies?
Ask the women in shelters what they make of the 43 Republican Senators who refused to convict Trump of inciting insurrection. They know what it’s like to live under the grip of an autocrat, to cling to a broken leader, one who is bent on defying and denying the very system that elected him and his followers to power. Isn’t it eerie how some of our Senators are behaving like the participant victims of domestic violence? Publicly they huddle together to vote allegiance to their former leader, while they whisper their doubts in private.
For most of recorded history, we homo sapiens have been led by autocrats. We have organized ourselves under tribes led by chiefs and kingdoms led by kings. Life under autocrats was better than life under chaos before civilization. It never was fair or nice, but it suited the nature we inherited from our herding animal ancestors, who followed their leaders. Those who strayed from the herd died young.
Then, two centuries ago along came a better idea, democracy. No more kings—let the people rule themselves. That was yesterday in history time. Democracy was a radical invention then, born through violent revolutions, over and over.
Since then most cultures have resisted democracy as unnecessary and unnatural. The spread of democracies around the globe has been a fitful experiment. In 1816 just 1% of the world’s population was governed by democracies. According to political scientist Samuel Huntington [link to Huntington 1991] the number of democracies reached a peak of 29 in 1922, dropped to 12 by 1942, and then rose to 36 by 1962. By 2015 that number had risen to 103 countries, embracing just 56% of the world’s population [link to Pinker 2017, p 203].
The process of moving a culture or a country from an autocracy to a democracy is not a straight shot, and many efforts fall somewhere in the middle with a blend of features from both systems. One country (like ours) can bounce around, flirting for a while with one end of the spectrum or the other. For a bit of good news about recent global trends, as collected and rated by the Polity Project (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polityproject.html), look at what’s happened to the spread of democracies in the past two centuries, and especially since 1980:
Since 1980 the trends have flipped as democracies have risen steeply in number and autocracies have dropped just as steeply. Of course, our flirtation with the autocrat does not show on this graph, but Stephen Pinker’s main reason for writing Enlightenment Now (2017) was to remind us that electing Trump in 2016 represents just one brief dip on the blue curve that has been rising steadily since 1945. Trump’s defeat in November 2020 is the correction that history predicted. Our Congress chose not to unseat him, but our voters finally did. Whew!
So what were we doing flirting with this autocrat? Blind loyalty is a useful trait if you’re a breastfeeding infant, and it can be useful for keeping us within the protection of our families and our tribes. Some variation on this drive for attachment also binds us to our churches and our political parties and our sports teams, whether they serve us well or not.
What do we do when betrayal, abuse, or neglect tests these attachments? Children usually cling tighter to the parent who threatens to leave or dismiss or hurt them. Adults have more choices, but often we cling as well. Even Senators cling. People who work with domestic violence victims see this every day. After many betrayals we still have a hard time letting go, not just of the relationship but of the meaning or mission for which the relationship stands.
I find it comforting to gaze at the red and blue lines in this chart of Global Trends in Governance. I’m going to tack that chart up on the wall in our kitchen, where we chew on the big issues. Yes, I feel bad about our nation flirting with autocracy, but I’m trying to let it go, trying to believe that we’re back on the path to mending our marriage with democracy.