It’s Hard for a Nation to Come Back From Deprioritizing Democracy

On Jan. 6, 2021, the United States was at crossroads. For the first time in our history, the defeated candidate in a U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump, had refused to concede the election, summoning a violent mob to the Capitol to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president. In the end, democracy and the rule of law prevailed as Vice President Mike Pence presided over the congressional certification of Biden’s election.

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In the days and weeks that followed, the future looked bright. A majority of Americans welcomed the return of a conventional president, breathing a sigh of relief that four years of a dangerously lawless administration capped by the failed coup attempt were at last in the rear-view mirror.

But optimism has since faded and the threat to democracy remains. Complacent Americans seem to believe that our institutional guardrails held last time and will again, whatever the outcome of the next election, even as Trump and his allies prepare to consolidate power aggressively in a second term. Even more alarming, too many voters have embraced Trump’s authoritarian turn, and are happy to sacrifice civil liberties for a leader they believe will make the country strong. While Trump has never commanded the support of more than a minority of voters, GOP efforts to downplay his autocratic tendencies and to normalize his strident nationalism may lull enough voters to push him over the finish line in the electoral college.

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This siren song has worked in the past. Consider the case of Germany. Since the early 19th century, the German people, divided among 39 separate political entities in Central Europe, had longed for unification under a representative government. However, they were thwarted by their conservative rulers as well as the heavy hand of the multi-ethnic Austria Empire, whose rulers feared both revolutionary nationalism and democracy in neighboring states. The Austria army regularly helped German princes crush fledgling democratic movements.

However, in early 1848, revolutions broke out across Europe, beginning in France and spreading across the continent. People took to the streets and rioted in cities across Europe, demanding change. Opposition politicians in the German states took advantage of the chaos to demand that their princes form new, more liberal governments. In 1908, Carl Schurz, looking back at the fast-moving events he experienced as a student at Prussia’s University of Bonn in the spring of 1848, wrote that “the word democracy was soon on all tongues,” and that the “princes” and other conservative forces would not dare “try to withhold from the people the rights and liberties demanded.

Indeed, rulers of the various German states and principalities, fearing that their rebellious subjects would start trying to take their rights by force, began to summon the liberal politicians they had previously ignored and promised governmental reforms. But this was no longer sufficient. In April, newly empowered German citizens elected delegates to a constitutional assembly to write a pan-German constitution. Its purpose was to establish more democratic governments in the individual German states, guarantee basic civil rights to all citizens, and most importantly, create a unified German nation-state—a “United States of Germany.”

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On May 18, 1848, the first national parliament in German history met at Frankfurt. The delegates were primarily the members of the German professional and business classes who took their responsibility to form a new national government seriously. In the heady days of May 1848, it appeared that the principles of liberalism and nationalism—that is the union of all German-speaking people under a government representing their interests—would triumph. Indeed, the first document the Frankfurt Parliament issued was a Declaration of the Fundamental Rights of the German People, which established the principles of freedom of speech and religion, equality before the law, and property rights.

But it wasn’t long before the conservative counterattack undercut the nascent representative governments throughout Europe. Reactionary rulers took advantage of class and ethnic conflict in their own countries to break down revolutionary solidarity and to bring a violent end to the newly established governments in France, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. In the German states, the Frankfurt Assembly worked diligently to resist the conservative backlash. In April 1849, the delegates asked King Frederick William of Prussia to lead the liberal empire their new constitution envisioned. However, he contemptuously refused to accept the imperial crown, leaving them without a head of state for their proposed nation. The moment for democratic reforms had passed. With no means of forcing the other German princes to accept their constitution and national unity, the delegates to the Frankfurt Assembly gave up and went home.

In short, the opportunity to fashion a liberal and constitutional German state failed. When Germany eventually unified in 1871, it would not be under a liberal constitution: it would be in the wake of Prussian-led war with Austria and France, under the aegis of Kaiser Wilhelm I and his conservative and autocratic minister-president, Otto von Bismarck. At this point, most Germans were willing to settle for unification, even if it meant that their political future would be authoritarian. The German people made the fateful decision to privilege nationalistic aspirations over democratic institutions, which set them on a dangerous path. While in 1848, German nationalists were hopeful that giving voice to democratic aspirations would lead organically to a unified Germany, that hope had faded by 1871. Too many Germans were willing to be convinced that “democracy” would weaken their nation, and that their rights, as Germans, were better protected under the wing of Prussia’s strong and militaristic state.

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The next opportunity to create a democratic German government wouldn’t come again for over half a century, in the wake of World War I. But at this point, German citizens had no tradition of democracy and would associate their new Weimar Republic with the dishonor of defeat rather than with their earlier efforts to establish a constitutional government. The Weimar Republic would also fail; resentment over the Versailles Treaty, the rigors of the Great Depression, and political extremists on the left and right led to its collapse—and to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. While it is too simplistic to trace a direct path from 1848 to Hitler’s assumption of power, in no country was the failure to institute democratic structures as consequential as it would be for Germany.

Those lessons matter for the United States today. At the close of that fateful day of Jan. 6, it appeared that Trump’s attempted coup had failed. But now the former president is far and away the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, promising to be a “dictator for one day” while at the same time asserting that he will employ the levers of power to exact revenge on his enemies and to protect himself from legal consequences for his former actions. Political scholars continue to warn Americans of the dire consequences of second Trump presidency, and no longer eschew the word fascism to describe his playbook. Defending democracy is a choice that will have to be made again in 2024—and then again in 2026, 2028, and into the future. Once a nation chooses or enables autocracy, that choice is difficult—if not impossible—to undo. The United States is approaching another crossroads soon, and it is not at all clear in which direction history will turn.

Christine Adams, a former American Council for Learned Societies and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation fellow at the Newberry Library, is professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and author of The Creation of the French Royal Mistress with Tracy Adams. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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