Why a Philosophy of History in which the Present Moment Is World-Altering Is Not Hubris and Is Politically Necessary

The habitat of most contributors to the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy initiative is the political maelstrom. They have studied and assessed it all—from the 1998 attempt to impeach a popular president to debt-ceiling crises and sequestration, to the overarching question of whether Americans want national government to take an active role in addressing problems. Explaining the litany of pathologies in the U.S. and other countries, predicting consequences, and offering proposals is their profession. I want to step back and reflect from my position as a scholar of the history of political thought—to take a long view, back and ahead. I’ll make one philosophical point, two historical points, and identify three challenges to democracy that are unique to the present moment and on present terms require changes that appear to be beyond imagination.

Philosophy first. Until quite recently, history was thought to have a direction and purpose—a teleology. Classic philosophical poses insist that moral and political consciousness develops through time, and that the present moment is unique. It is a turning point in human (Western) history: Kant’s glimmer of perpetual peace, Marx’s communism (in the womb waiting to be born). Philosophers set out the dynamic that moves us through world-historical stages: the evolution of reason, class conflict, and so on. The present moment is critical, too, because of our stage of enlightenment: new insights are available to us. The philosopher Hegel stated it in its most dramatic form. We are at the end of history and in a position, now, to understand "how we got to be the way we are," and why how we are is the result of reason working itself out in the world. Every philosopher of history betrayed this bit of hubris. Either we are at the end of history, which culminates in us, or we are at the point where we can see the future—communism is a specter haunting Europe.

So it is worth noting that today we have no interest or ambition in conceiving a grand historical dynamic, whether progressive or dystopian and apocalyptic. Our anxieties about democracy are a moment in time, and they are compelling simply because it is our moment and our political responsibility. Suffice to say that except for fundamentalist faith, government is where we must place our hope for improving the quality of life and the fate of the earth. At the end of my reflections I’ll come back to why this presentism matters—to what is lost when we place ourselves outside of a philosophy of history.

The theme “anxieties of democracy” (anxieties of? about? for democracy? what is the right preposition?) is everywhere. Why are the challenges, burdens, and anxieties acute today?

Here is where my two historical points provide insight:

The acuteness of the burden owes, first, to the fact that there are virtually no compelling alternatives to democracy presently practiced or articulated in a comprehensive political ideology. In How to Cure a Fanatic, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote, “Who would have thought that the twentieth century would be immediately followed by the eleventh century?” Outside of theology, however, there is no critique of democracy in the name of something better. No widely held defense of communism, socialism, fascism, authoritarianism (except as a stopgap), and no reactionary demand for deference to traditional authority is in play.1 Democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Nor is there fear that advanced democracies are fragile and will collapse into dictatorship. (I address expanding executive power and the national security state below.) The question we ask is why and under what conditions do autocratic states "fake" democracy or do nondemocratic states transition to (and sustain) something like a democratic form?

The “no alternatives” argument extends to institutions and processes. The basics of political representation, separation of executive and legislative powers (or Parliamentarism), elections and party systems, and independent courts are not static, but they remain largely untouched by reform proposals around the edges.2

This means that anxieties about democratic justice or institutional dysfunction arise from self-scrutiny. The challenges come from within. They are matters of self-doubt: e.g., are we unfaithful to "our own" values, which themselves are various and conflicting?; are we are going backward in terms of quality of life? The bracing political psychology, the energetic rallying that propels responses to threats from without, is missing.

My second historical observation is that we stand in a new relation to the two foundational anxieties about democracy. One is the problem of the demos—the competence of citizens. Nothing is more enduring than fear of mass irrationality, expressed directly through populist mechanisms or indirectly via elections. The fear is ignorance, bias, dumb partisan loyalty, and false consciousness, combined with the capacity to demand responsive government.3

How are preferences formed—demagoguery or “scientific” framing, or targeting and “narrow-casting”? Where do opinions and intensity come from? The question is posed in social scientific terms and, often enough, with a political slant. Senator Inhofe expresses that fear from the radical Right: “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?”4 Are people’s demands on or against government the right ones? How much democratic "responsiveness" do we want?

The counterpart fear is of elites: Jefferson’s aristocracy, the Progressives’ plutocrats, technical experts, entrenched political representatives immune to electoral competition as a result of vote suppression or party collusion—in short, some separate group or class with sinister interests, generally remote from the people and specifically unresponsive to majorities. The terms oligarchy, plutocracy, and the "1 percent" or ".01 percent" are part of everyday politics. At the moment, the specific concern about growing economic inequality is its consequence for political inequality, and the question is whether and how to cordon off electoral politics, institute campaign finance reform, and temper the influence of powerful interests on policy apart from elections. The very rich have different preferences from the rest.5

My historical point is that this traditional pair of fears is with us still, but neither is dominant. So anxiety is acute because we cycle confusedly between demands to repair the problems of democracy with more democracy. We layer on more popular voice and participation outside of standard parties and elections and legislative process: e.g., plebiscites, populist referenda, constitutional conventions at the state level, citizen juries, expanding the jurisdiction of localism. To these, we add informal popular action, noticeably (deliberately) disconnected from defined constituencies and from electoral politics, programs, or decision making: e.g., “Occupy” and festivals of protest, crowd “swarming,” the sense that the internet delivers of politics as “equality feeling.” At the same time, we want more delegation: policy experts, gatekeepers in the form of independent agencies, nonpartisan commissions, representation via organizations, and so on.6

The default call is for more "transparency": a consensus cure-all for both too much and too little participatory democracy. (That, and the ideology shared in varying degrees by both U.S. parties to remove many key decisions and distributions from elite/mass politics by assigning them to more or less regulated capitalist markets.)

These two historical points to which we have come—democracy as the only legitimate form of government, and elite/popular cycling—explain something of the urgency. They are the background to contemporary anxieties, which is our theme. At the core of every account of the anxieties of democracy today is doubt about the capacity of democracies to govern effectively. The charged issue is not legitimacy but performance. This challenge takes two very different forms:

1. The demands on government are huge, but scale and complexity alone do not account for doubts. (This is neither the first economic crisis and stagnation nor the first instance of declining opportunities for the young.) The challenges are acute today because democratic capacities have been degraded. On this view, dysfunction is contingent. It varies among national governments. It is presumably reparable. The focus of myriad proposals for reform depends on our analysis of the source of degradation: repairing mistrust of government and political disaffection;7 correcting political inequality; removing obstacles to voting; tempering hyperpartisanship, overcoming gridlock, and recovering the spirit of compromise; reforming legislative barriers to doing business, like supermajorities; countering the twin dangers of fragmentation of information on the one hand and media concentration on the other. "Fixes" may not be immediately feasible but they are conceivable within the basic democratic institutional framework.

2. But challenges to the capacity of democracies to perform are different if we think that they are historically distinctive and that the demands on government (and on our understanding) seem to be altogether beyond the capacity of any democracy to address. One cautious scientist who thinks that “climate change may not be the world’s most pressing problem” concedes, “it could still prove to be the most complex challenge the world has ever faced.”8 But on the view I have in mind, incapacity is not a matter of complexity, per se. We are tempted to say the incapacities are inherent in democracy. A politics that can address the anxieties of the present moment is, just now, beyond imagination.

So, let me propose three world-altering challenges—themes that are distinctive to advanced democracy in the early twenty-first century and that even the best-designed institutional repair seems unable to address.

The first is what I’ll call the question of “political time.” By this, I mean incongruence between the timeframe of democratic decision making and the need for quick and energetic action on the one hand (not only foreign policy, as we saw with financial crisis and the stimulus bill) and, more intractable still, the need for long term planning on the other. Unique to this moment is the speed-up as well as diffusion of news and communication; the imperial expansion of electoral time so that U.S. politics is shaped day-to-day by a “permanent campaign.” At the same time, there is a greater-than-ever need for a long term horizon of planning, even where there is no immediate crisis (i.e., social security). We face the incapacity of democratic representatives to engage questions of intergenerational justice, indeed survival. The deep problem of the disjuncture between long term provision and the political time of representative democracy is not entirely a matter of particular men, of particular political institutions and processes or, for that matter, of a neoliberal ideology that resists planning as 'socialistic.' It is a matter of the electoral time-horizon and of something else deep in our moral psychology. I’ll return to this in a moment.

The second world-altering challenge—call it globalization—has confronted domestic governments for centuries, but we are charged with a change of degree and kind. The focus today is immense, concentrated corporate forces that supply the life-blood of modern life: the colossal power and reach of fossil fuel corporations, their virtual immunity to national regulation, and the self-preservative, wealth-preservative strategies that make them “merchants of doubt.” The vulnerability of governments and populations to their operations is patent. Energy and finance are mobile and impossible to regulate and control domestically.

This is not entirely a matter of "democratic deficit" in the institutional or electoral sense. Corporate control of energy and finance is not obviously reparable via better representation or more political equality, however defined.

Nor is it just that we do not have a strong account of social productivity or standards for assessing social destructiveness. (Tobacco is a hopeful case.)

Rather, this is a case of the inherently limited scope of national democratic governments. The challenges require international collective action in a new key. And both the political ingenuity and motivation must come from elected officials, because, for reasons I come to in a moment, the challenges do not have popular attention or support; they are not immediately 'salient.' More, they are beyond imagination.

A third burden has to do with national security or, better, its consequences. The national security state’s unresisted claim on resources and expanding encroachment on personal liberty—to say nothing of the quality of decision making and recourse to fear as a route to political justification—are unprecedented. Originating with World War II, but made permanent and expanding without limit, we could see this as part of the larger problem of executive-centered government, which is doubly concentrated in the U.S. (versus parliamentary systems) in the executive branch and in the presidency. It is one among other examples of legislatures "punting" to the executive, courts, and government agencies, and acquiescing in or ignoring the democratic dysfunction of massive secrecy. However, the security apparatus is distinctive. It is uniquely invulnerable to legislatures. And aspects of the national security state are new—the uncertainty of negative events (e.g., terrorism or cyberwar), the breakdown of the post war international system, and of course the possibility of world destruction. The chief world-altering element, though, is technological—drones, surveillance, "big data." The uses and consequences of this element are potentially, if not actually, totalistic, and its control is beyond imagination.

These three “world-historical” challenges to democracy are similar in that at the root of each is not just institutions and political ecology, but also political imagination and moral psychology.9 Political time, "big data," and the corporate forces behind global warming result in a profound condition of mind and habitat out of sync.10 They are as out of sync for democratic representatives and government officials as they are for citizens. The habitat of political time, the omnipresent maw of data and surveillance, and in a literal sense, mind and habitat out of sync with regard to planning (and, significantly, in responding to global warming).

I’ll use climate change to drive the point home. The existential threat of global warming is too hard to grasp, emotionally and cognitively. We in high-consumption countries are warned of catastrophe if we just keep doing what have been doing, and that the changes required go beyond energy-saving lightbulbs. Global warming undercuts foundational assumptions of economic growth. The timeframe is uncertain. (Slow is unfathomable—the thirty-year mortgage pushes the limits of our view into the future— while abrupt is unthinkable, despite extreme weather events.) And the method for addressing it—"discounting"—is beyond our ken. Our minds are resistant. Again, this is as true for democratic officials as it is for private citizens.11

Which returns me to my starting point: a philosophy of history in which the present moment is unique for human well-being and understanding. The point to which we have come is a historic turning point for the capacity of democracy, and even for our habitat and species.12

We could use a philosophy of enlightenment progress. When Kant wrote his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” he admitted that he could not know whether his account of historical movement was right. But he thought it could have modest effect. If officials believe history is moving in the direction of perpetual peace, they have “a minor motive” for being “on the right side.” That is what 'Idealism' is: the view that ideas, a projection of reason, can have an effect even if it does not conform to anything in reality. It is a goal to be approached.

Kant also thought a philosophy of history would enhance our “rational self-esteem.” If we think we are becoming enlightened, personally and individually, we can see ourselves as agents—not just objects of history.

The burden of democracy for social science is, of course, assessing how to fix institutions, repair inequalities, infuse partisanship with spirit of compromise, and design (and motivate) transnational arenas for critical decisions. It is also, and at bottom, to refuse to let democracy’s failures make us dispirited. That is as true for scholars as it is for political activists. It requires an iota of utopianism, of hope and political imagination, to place ourselves in a philosophy of history in which the present is critical. Without that collective act of human creativity and adaptability, we flirt with existential catastrophe. If that is too histrionic, I’ll just say that without this act of political imagination—without appreciating the importance of a narrative of historical progress—we invite profound antipolitics, a confidence gap that resists all active policy, despairs of political agency, and finally hollows out democracy.

  1. See Timothy Frye, “Representative Democracy and Alternative Models,” on the small number of autocracies and “hybrid regimes,” and the adjustment of autocracies to democracy: “faking democracy.”
  2. Deliberative arenas for citizen decision making, for example, or Dorf and Sabel’s work on small-scale democratic experimentalism. The EU and transnational institutions figure here. Dorf, Michael C., and Charles F. Sabel. 1998. "A Constitution of Democratic Experimentalism." Columbia Law Review 98 (2): 267–473.
  3. Methodologies for measuring and fine-tuned distinctions among forms of ignorance and bias are new.
  4. Inhofe, James. 2011. “The Science of Climate Change: Senate Floor Statement 2003.” In The Global Warming Reader, ed. Bill McKibben, 191. New York: Penguin.
  5. Page, Benjamin, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright. March 2013. “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans.” Perspectives in Politics 11 (1): 51–73.
  6. This, despite a weakening of intermediate associations that link citizens to government: e.g., unions, voluntary associations, political parties, organized movement politics, and the simultaneous rise in the number, funding, and tactical innovations of professionalized advocacy and lobbying groups. Weakened intermediate associations play a part in the unresponsiveness of elected officials but also in access to administrative and regulative agencies, where popular interests are underrepresented. See Rosenblum, Nancy L. 1998. Membership and Morals. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  7. Empirical evidence for mistrust and the reasons for it (is economic inequality or political inequality cause or effect?) appear to be contested, as are baselines. Looking ahead, the possibility of increased political detachment or anomie by large swaths of the population may not be the only democratic concern. Unemployment among educated as well as less educated segments, together with constraints on movement, may predict political unrest that democracies have difficulty containing. Outside the democratic North, rising sea levels and droughts predict unrest and the prospect of population movements, raising economic and national security concerns. Which is the greater anxiety—anomie or disruptive engagement?
  8. Ernesto Zedillo quoted in Freeman Dyson, NYRB, June 12, 2008. This was later explained: we have to balance “climate damage, maintaining economic growth, avoiding catastrophic risks, not imposing undue hardships on poor people or future generations.” See Nordhaus, William, Dimitri Zenghelis, and Leigh Sullivan. 2008. “The Question of Global Warming: An Exchange.” NYRB.
  9. Ian Shapiro made a less speculative, more modest version of this point: electoral coalitions are not policy coalitions, which have difficulty cohering and need a narrative to hold together, in “Anxieties of Democracy and Distribution."
  10. The phrase is Robert Jay Lifton’s, from “Mind and Habitat,” on file with the author.
  11. There is precedent for attention to the moral psychology of “mind and habitat” in the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. Images of Hiroshima and H bomb testing provided a psychological “way in” to conceiving nuclear destruction and human death and disfigurement. Climate change is happening without a big bang. Images of spaceship Earth reveal dust storms and fragmenting ice sheets and remind us that national borders are artifacts, but not the human drama of nuclear war or large-scale ecomigration. The “we” of a shared habitat is beyond imagination: one of the world-altering challenges to democracy.
  12. Apocalyptic dystopias are with us. Consider a sober realist: Timothy Garten Ash, in "It Always Lies Below," writes that “the crust of civilization on which we tread is always wafer thin. One tremor, and you’ve fallen through… Remove the elementary staples of organized civilized life—food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security—and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature.” Climate change, he goes on, could “push humanity back... Even with current levels of immigration the resulting encounters… are proving explosive.” He sees “the advancing shadow of a new European barbarism.” See: Ash, Timothy Garten. Sept. 7, 2005. "It Always Lies Below." The Guardian.
About the Author
Nancy Rosenblum is Harvard University Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government Emerita. Her field of research is historical and contemporary political thought. Rosenblum's most recent book is Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, published by Princeton University Press in 2016. She is editor of Thoreau: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Rosenblum is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is past President of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy, past Vice-President of the American Political Science Association, past Board Member of the Russell Sage Foundation, and past Chair of Harvard’s Department of Government, from 2004 to 2011. She is currently Co-Editor of the Annual Review of Political Science, serves on the Anxieties of Democracy program’s Advisory Committee, and co-Chairs its Working Group on Climate Change.