To understand how societies decline and disintegrate, look at this tale of two cities. I spent a few days last month in Minsk, Belarus, a city today of two million people that was completely destroyed during World War II and then built anew. Its streets are clean, with ultra-modern buildings and housing, spacious boulevards, interspersed with parks and lakes, no crime, no homeless and no attacks on Jews in several decades. Oh yes, the people cannot vote in any meaningful election as the country is ruled by an authoritarian, but the city is completely devoid of the drabness that typifies the old Communist capitals.
New York City, by contrast, is filthy, rat-infested, crime-ridden, with a crumbling infrastructure, garbage littering the streets, tens of thousands of homeless in the streets and almost daily assaults on Jews. And, yes, people get to vote (and do) for the same politicians every few years. This is the dark side of democracy, and its failed mayor now wishes to be president.
On the surface, why would anyone choose to live in NYC instead of, say, Minsk? The esthetics of Minsk easily surpasses those of New York. This is meant neither to romanticize dictatorships nor simply to extol the virtues of the trains running on time, not that the latter is unimportant. And clearly, democracy entails more than the limited ability to vote for one’s leaders. Belarus’ economy is state-controlled as per the Chinese model. Although there are economic opportunities and entrepreneurship, and massive building projects throughout the city, greater opportunities still abound in America. And it would be hard for an American raised with constitutional rights to freedom of expression and others to tolerate the limitations on speech that all totalitarian countries demand. (Freedom of religion is guaranteed. The shul in Minsk has no guard or security, which, as the Rabbi said, has never been needed.) It is fascinating that we encountered several Israelis who had been young olim from the former Soviet Union and who have now returned to live and work in Minsk – notwithstanding their inability to vote for their leaders.
Still, seeing the exterior of what was once a backwards country and is now ultra-modern makes one wonder about the survivability of democracies that fail to address the concerns and needs of its citizens. The USA today is a troubled country, and casting blame at President Trump or the Resistance to President Trump actually obscures rather than illuminates its troubles, and makes rectification much more difficult. We tend to believe that the status quo never changes, and that powerful empires cannot collapse – until they do. Indeed, the truism of history is that something that is always is – until it is not. And that last stage shocks the onlookers, even if it was predictable.
So how do great nations fail?
President Xi of China said a few years ago, before he began his crackdown on the limited freedoms Chinese enjoyed, that “to destroy a nation, you must first destroy its history.” The United States is doing a magnificent job in that respect. Several generations of American students have grown up learning in American public schools how the US has always been a force for evil in the world, marred by its original sins of stealing land from the Indians and enslaving blacks, and guilty of attempted colonization of various parts of the world and of creating a rapacious capitalist economy that rewards the few and hobbles the many.
Ironically, each point can be argued, but to look at America this way is to embrace a grotesque picture and a bizarre distortion of its founding principles, purpose and politics. The Indians had limited claims to sovereignty; most of the land was vacant. Slavery, accepted then across the world as normative, was indeed the dark cloud that hovered over the American experiment. The founders argued over it and dealt with it – and eventually fought a war over it that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Americans – more than 300,000 dead who were enlisted in the cause of abolishing slavery. Never in the history of mankind had so many free people fought and died to gain freedom for the enslaved.
Yet, those founders who wrestled with slavery and those Union soldiers who fought to end it are never credited for their morality or sacrifice. It is as if the sin of slavery can never be expiated.
What is studiously ignored is the fact that these same founders created – for the first time in human history – a republic in which people voted for or against their leaders in regular elections (beginning only with male, white landowners, and then gradually expanding over two centuries to include all citizens), which guaranteed the natural freedoms of speech, worship, assembly and the press and curbed the power of the state to prosecute and imprison the ordinary citizen. These same founders created a system of government with three branches, with checks and balances to ensure that what had bedeviled other attempts at self-government would not impair this one. And this American republic has endured quite well through wars and other hardships, and through massive immigration at various times in its history that completely changed the fabric of nation, while asking only that the new immigrants see themselves as Americans and not as foreign nationals residing in the United States.
Decades of teaching and underscoring the negatives of US history, and downplaying its historic successes, have led many young Americans to disparage the American experiment, recoil at the notion of American exceptionalism, and in the case of one recent American president (who also rejected American exceptionalism), traveling the world apologizing for America’s sins while being disdainful of America’s generosity and benevolence towards countries in need.
That is one way to begin the process of destroying a country. The widespread ignorance by most Americans of their history, system of government, accomplishments and successes is breathtaking – those who place the Civil War in the 1940’s and World War II in the 1840’s; those who cannot name their congressman, Senator, or even one Supreme Court justice, etc. – and sobering.
Another way to destroy a nation is for the elites to use the political system to gain power and wealth, and not at all to accomplish anything for the people. This sadly typifies American politics today. The obsession with President Trump – an obsession that has blinded the political class to the need to secure the borders, regulate immigration, rebuild the infrastructure, reward individual merit and not group identity, reform the health coverage system in which so many pay so much to get so little – will require an exorcism to uproot. It is beyond the irrational and has reached the level of the inexplicable and pathological.
The stability of any society is endangered when the political system is no longer responsive to the needs of the public, and especially when the society is composed not of individuals all claiming the same rights and privileges but different groups, basing themselves on accidental or ancillary characteristics, claiming for themselves special rights and privileges and willing to use force if their demands are not met. That has engendered the fear of controlling legal immigration and banning illegal immigration, of having college admissions or job opportunities based primarily on merit, of allowing the people the self-expression to live their lives even though they spread disease (measles in some of our communities and now the typhus in LA) and soil the streets of major cities (as in San Francisco, among other places).
A country that no longer has common bonds, a shared history, or a collective identity will disintegrate. Right now there are two Americas that barely interact or understand each other. Wait until there are four or five such Americas.
Another way to destroy a civilization is to saturate the masses with mindless, stultifying entertainment to distract them from the failure of the ruling class to solve any outstanding problem or even to deal with them constructively. And then legalize a range of narcotics that will lead to further stupefaction. Add to that a culture that is awash in moral relativism, that has abandoned even the lip service once paid to biblical morality, that has no clear conception of moral rights and wrongs or any cogent way to ascertain them and whose national birth rate has fallen below replacement level, and we have a society that is adrift and yet celebrating the disappearance of traditional values.
Typically, today, the elites argue over who is a boy and who is a girl, or none of the above, or all of the above, while every few weeks there is a mass shooting that takes multiple lives. The right to murder full-term fetuses and even newborns is revered by too many people, even as tens of thousands of people annually drug themselves to death. That is a society that is incapable of dealing with any substantive issue with anything more than clichés, or with proposed solutions that have no chance of succeeding but will attract the most votes to put those who proffer them into power.
Here is another tried and tested method of destroying democracies: investigate and hamstring the leaders to the point of paralysis, while simultaneously intimating to all the nation’s adversaries to just wait the guy out. It is increasingly clear that such messages have been sent to countries as diverse as Iran, China, Mexico, North Korea and others – there is no need to negotiate or concede anything because there will be a better deal to be obtained in a year or two (or five). As democratic leaders change fairly frequently (in the US it is every four or eight years; in Italy, every four or eight months), autocracies have the upper hand in negotiations and their negotiating positions have staying power. No wonder China steals American intellectual property with impunity.
A society that doesn’t understand or derides its history, that revels in its decadence, that harasses its leaders and that sees every problem through the prism of the zero-sum game of politics gives democracy a bad name. When most people despair of solving any of the nation’s ills and just want their team to win, the idea of a benevolent, G-d-fearing dictator becomes much more attractive.
Of course the practical problem is the dearth of dictators who are actually benevolent and G-d-fearing. And that is how nations wither, wane and disappear.
Everything is as it is, until it isn’t. And the seeds have already been sown.