Opinion | American Progress Is No Longer a Sure Thing – The New York Times

Posted: May 20, 2022 at 2:15 am

For us the supposedly growing masses who believed in a multicultural, egalitarian future the election of Barack Obama signaled the great confirmation and, perhaps, the conclusion of a slow moving story that started with the Emancipation Proclamation. The possibility of a Black president had always been a litmus test for an egalitarian society, and we had finally passed it. The headlines the morning after Obamas 2008 victory suggested this was not only a win for the Democratic Party but the country, as a whole. America Makes History, USA Today proclaimed. This newspaper went with Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.

But the election of Donald Trump shattered the narrative going forward that Obama had promised an increasingly diverse country that would eventually melt into a post-racial utopia. But Trumpism didnt really break free from the linear vision of history and promise some new political future. Instead, it just proposed we go back the other way.

The man who is suspected to have killed 10 people in Buffalo also believed in the linearity and the inevitability of American change. He saw the browning of the country as a sin against a natural order in which people stayed in their own countries; where immigration and the mere existence of Black people could only be stopped by acts of extreme violence. Reading his rambling manifesto, I was struck by just how much his vision resembled the hope that so many of us espoused on Election Day in 2008 one that might not have even been electorally accurate that the growing coalition of us had overwhelmed them. Time would win.

On a recent long car ride, I listened to the end of Francis Fukuyamas landmark 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. It had been about 20 or so years since I had first picked it up and had forgotten that Fukuyama concludes the book with an extended metaphor about a series of wagons all traveling to the same destination, which he sees as a world that has settled upon Western liberal democracy as its universal governing ideal. He writes:

The great majority of wagons will be making the slow journey into town, and most will eventually arrive there. The wagons are all similar to one another: while they are painted different colors and are constructed of varied materials, each has four wheels and is drawn by horses, while inside sits a family hoping and praying that their journey will be a safe one. The apparent differences in the situations of the wagons will not be seen as reflecting permanent and necessary differences between the people riding in the wagons, but simply a product of their different positions along the road.

Proving Fukuyama wrong has almost become a rite of passage in philosophy and political science. His theory of an entire world of free markets and elections was predicated on what was happening in the late 80s and early 90s with the end of the U.S.S.R., the mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throw a dart at a map now, and youll likely find a counterpoint: the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin, the election of Donald Trump, the resurrection of the Taliban.

I agree with Fukuyamas critics, but I still think there is value in his wagon metaphor, not in its veracity, but in how it reflects the way in which so many of us, especially those raised in the 80s and 90s, believed in the slow, but steady march of American progress. Fukuyamas faith in the unrelenting spread of liberal democracy was just as blinkered and hopeful as the progressive, American belief that all the Jesse Helmses would eventually die out and leave behind a much more tolerant and forward-thinking country, unencumbered by the bigoted relics of the past. That was our end of history, and much of the disorientation of recent years has come from the perpetual disruption of that optimism.

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Opinion | American Progress Is No Longer a Sure Thing - The New York Times

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