Based on my amateur reading of history, I really am convinced that all entities – everything from organizations to ethnic groups and nation-states – possess a sort of center of gravity, a set of temperamental predispositions born of experience that often stretch back centuries, even millennia. And even following long periods of social and cultural upheaval – bloody revolution and radical social and cultural upheaval in the case of late 18th century France and early 20th century Russia, for example – entities are apt to settle back into older social and cultural grooves over the course of time.
Indeed, post-Soviet Russia serves as a textbook example. After flailing its arms in frustration in the decade following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia finally abandoned its ill-fated experiment with western-style democracy and constructed a new national vision on the basis of its ancient Orthodox and Eurasian origins. Frankly, I don’t find this the least bit surprising.
Germany: The Notable Exception?
The thought has occurred to me that one country may prove to be the unique exception to this rule: Germany, which, in historical terms, has never been that well disposed toward western democracy. Yes, there was always a strong but embattled liberal minority in the country, but liberal democracy prevailed in Germany for two reasons.
First, the conquerors of western Germany, Britain and the United States, imposed democracy on that region of the country and insisted that it take root. Second, and fortunately for the Allies, this system was planted into the region of Germany that, because of its long, and shared cultural association with western Europe, contained the most fertile soil for democratic experimentation.
Even so, West Germans were not all that favorably disposed to democracy at first. But standing amid the ruins of Nazi Germany and knowing full well that the only other alternative that existed was some variant of Soviet communism, they hunkered down, took their medicine and began laying the bricks of German liberal democracy under the West’s aegis.
Over time, largely due to the German people’s formidable persistence, democracy acquired deep roots. Younger generations of German’s took to it, and it even appears that former East Germany, which comprised much of historic, authoritarian Prussia, will accept democracy as a permanent cultural legacy.
Time will tell whether Germany ultimately reverts to its older legacy of Prussian-imposed authoritarianism.
A Lesson for Americans?
Is there a lesson here for Americans? Yes, I think so. I do think that the cultural divisions that are emerging in this this country reflect the longstanding ethno-cultural and political dispositions of the country’s various regions. Following the breakdown of vital center liberalism within the last half century, these regions are reverting to their historic social, cultural and ethnic predispositions, much as post-Soviet Russia has within the last generation.
This brings me back to a quote from columnist Michael Malice’s brilliant column last year titled “The Case for American Secession.” As Malice, focusing on the especially deep and historic cultural divisions of the North and South, stresses, “The real conundrum is why two cultures should attempt to move forward as one unit when they are increasingly diverging in their world views—and never had the same worldview to begin with. We couldn’t bring liberal democracy to Iraq, and we couldn’t bring it to the South.”
Bear in mind, I’m not an advocate for American secession, but I do believe that Malice raises a critical point. We have got to face up to the fact that wrenching cultural divisions not only exist in this country but are also proving increasingly intractable They are not going away. And this reality is calling on us to undertake a sweeping reform of federalism.
Either we stay ahead of this crisis by undertaking systemic reform or we end up being consumed by it, much as our forebears were by the constitutional and cultural crisis that preceded the Civil War.