For 250 years or more, a particular model of human political development has led the way towards a new future, first in Europe and the Americas, and then, in the twentieth century, in the rest of the world. Democracy--the election of political leadership--emerged as one part of that model in the wake of the American Revolution, but it was only one aspect of it. A second aspect was the idea of equal citizenship under the law, societies without legal privileges for particular classes---which was what Tocqueville, among others, meant by the democracy which he saw spreading over the whole world. And the third, which was to some extent independent of the first two, was the idea of government operating according to science and reason, respecting established procedures, and promoting the health, economic progress, and general happiness of the whole population. One could argue that the third was the most important of all, since it could govern the actions of an enlightened monarchy or even a totalitarian dictatorship as well as those of a democratically elected government. All these ideas are in retreat in much of the world, as three news items show.
The first of these, closest to home, is a story in the New York Times about President Trump's new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Trump came into office railing against the Washington establishment and the "Deep State", the mostly liberal bureaucrats and national security bureaucracy that have been trying to implement the Enlightenment model of government since the founding of the Republic, and more actively since the progressive era. In so doing, he spoke for the Republican base in the heartland, who had railed against that group since the New Deal, and who, as the 2016 primaries showed, had lost all confidence in the Republican establishment, which had reached at least a truce with that class a long time ago. Trump's first two chiefs of staff--and particularly John Kelley, who held the position for well over a year--saw their role as negotiating between the President on the one hand and the establishment on the other, especially on national security issues. Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who won election to the House of Representatives in the 2010 Tea Party wave, appears to have as little sympathy for the bureaucracy as his boss, and as a New York Times story today reports, he is "letting Trump be Trump," making no effort either to control access to the mercurial President or to moderate his views. He and Trump decided on their own to join the lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, they agreed on the firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen and some of her leading subordinates, and Mulvaney did not attempt to restrain the President's threats to close the border. No modern president has tried to govern from the White House in defiance of the bureaucracy in this way. Trump and Steven Miller seem to want to transform DHS and ICE into bureaucracies that will do their bidding, and if they can do so, that will take a big step towards a different kind of presidential government.
The second step away from the principles of the 19th and 20th centuries, I would argue, is Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent victory in the Israeli elections, after he had promised to begin annexing parts of the West Bank. The founders of the state of Israel in 1948 took care to put it firmly within the mainstream political thinking of the twentieth century, even as they also called upon Old Testament precedents to justify their claim to the land. Not only had they secured the approval of both the League of Nations and the UN for some form of the Zionist project, but they also founded a state based on democratic principles and equal rights, even for the non-Jews who remained inside Israel after the formation of the state. 52 years ago, the 1967 war vastly increased the Arab population under their control, and that population--within all the territory west of the Jordan River, and in Gaza--is now about equal to the Jewish population of Israel, and is still increasing more rapidly. Since the aftermath of the 1967 war, the rest of the world, including the government of the United States, has stood for a two-state solution that will give Palestinians equal rights, and some Israeli governments have endorsed it in principle. Now Netanyahu and his allies have apparently become weary of this endless disconnect between theory and practice and want to move towards annexation. That will leave millions of Palestinians without political rights, living in tightly controlled and segregated communities in a condition which certainly walks and quacks like apartheid. Every sign suggests that President Trump will enthusiastically endorse any steps in this direction that Netanyahu chooses to take. Netanyahu's victory also showed that the Arab citizens of Israel (who were recently reduced to second-class citizenship as well by a new law proclaiming Israel to be a state of the Jews alone) had lost faith in modern democracy. Their very low turnout--which the government took steps to encourage--was key to the right wing coalition's apparent victory.
Even closer to home, the measles crisis in Queens and Brooklyn shows that another fundamental principle of modern life has now eroded. We take public health for granted nowadays, but it was a critical feature of the growth of the modern state, which asserted the right to take various coercive steps against disease, such as quarantining and contact tracing to halt the spread of infections. Vaccination, which by their very nature often had to be universal to be effective, also became a kind of government measure. Now we have an outbreak of measles, which could have been completely eradicated by now, because Americans of various political and religious persuasions refuse to be vaccinated. The mayor of New York is trying to reassert a fundamental feature of modern government authority, and I hope that he succeeds--but the problem itself shows how we are leaving the Enlightenment behind.
The rhythm of history decrees that new generations will challenge any consensus, mobilizng the ambient anger that ebbs and flows under the surface. That is why previous high points of civilization in various ancient empires did not survive, and gave way instead to centuries of anarchy and intellectual regression. I feel very fortunate now, having written my autobiography, to have been born into a world dominated by Enlightenment thought, and to have tried to use some of its principles myself in my work as an historian. That I shall continue to do for as long as I can. We must however recognize that the era of the mid-20th century is over and that the achievements of that period are under grave threat--especially in the political sphere. They were, like all living human achievements, provisional.