Where Are We On The Roller Coaster Of History?

Historians in the News
tags: 2020 Election, 2020, COVID-19

Historian Jeremi Suri is calm. Surprisingly calm, considering what he has to say about the current state of the American democracy. But if we look at our own history, he says discord and disagreement are just part of the deal.

"You know, I'm among those historians who see democracy as a rollercoaster. It goes up and down. It's not a straight line," says Suri, speaking to Charles Monroe-Kane for "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." "We like to think that every generation gets better at this thing called democracy. It's not true. Some generations, because of their circumstances, do better. And some don't." 

Suri is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and a former history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He's also the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy, most recently "The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office." He placed our present moment into a larger context — and used the ups and downs of the past to theorize what might be on the track ahead of us. 

Jeremi Suri: We're at a low point, but we're moving to a high point. I think right now, we're a low point in participation. We're at a low point in engagement. And we're at a low point in the rotation of power. All those things, the way they operate in our society today, our founders would be astounded and dismayed. 

But I feel like we're climbing back up again now. The Black Lives Matter movement was the largest social movement in American history. Almost all the activities were peaceful, and they involved more white people than Black people, in fact.

That's engagement. That's what democracy is about. And this is often the case, that in our low moments, it's the marginalized groups that lead us back up the hill of democracy.

Charles Monroe-Kane: Okay, I smell hope. I'm all excited. I'm leaning forward. But do we really have to go through all this pain to get there?

JS: Unfortunately, yes. I think if there's one truism about American history, it's that peaceful change is a myth. We're a very violent society. We don't teach it that way. We're a very, very violent society. 

Even the Congressional Research Service has pointed out that there are very few years in our entire history when we have not been at war. We don't always call it war. But if you define war as the organized use of violence against a group defined as a threat? We have the highest incarceration rate of any peer society. That's the kind of violence, right? 

Read entire article at Wisconsin Public Radio

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