Why study history? Because it can save us from democratic collapse.Roundup
tags: education, democracy, history, academia
John Jeffries Martin is professor and chair of history at Duke University, currently writing a book on apocalypticism and modernity in 16th-century Europe and the Mediterranean.
Democracy is under attack. Not only are our major institutions, Congress and the courts, failing to hold a lawless president in check, our electoral system — hammered by Citizens United, rampant gerrymandering, voter suppression and now Russian interference — is crumbling, too.
And democracy is under attack elsewhere, too. From Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the epidemic is global.
How can we fight this threat to democracy? We can study history. If we can excavate the forces that threaten and invigorate democratic institutions, then history can do much to help us weather the present crisis, both in the United States and abroad. Over the past 500 years, historical thinking has advanced, expanded and reinvigorated democracy. Why? In part because it identifies the institutions that protect democratic systems. But it also emboldens people to stand up for their values.
One of the core lessons of history is that each of us, no matter what our social status or our race or our gender, make history. Each of us has a role, both individually and collectively, to play in preserving liberty and democracy.
There is nothing new about this approach. In 1512, Niccolò Machiavelli witnessed the collapse of the Florentine Republic. A prominent government official, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured and exiled. Then, over the next few years, he and a number of other humanists, all concerned by the shifts toward far more restrictive forms of political power, came together to consider how to preserve republican forms of government. Machiavelli outlined his solution in his “Discourses on the First Ten Decades of Livy.” Through his careful study of history, he discovered that the Romans had preserved their republic only as long as power was not absorbed into a single institution. Roman liberty, Machiavelli argued, depended upon a “mixed government,” a system of checks and balances.
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