Revolutionary governments often keep the rhetoric, but most quickly drop the revolution.
Consider North Korea, which was created as a communist country dedicated to eradicating class differences. They have kept the ideological language of communism, but quickly morphed into a society defined by a rigid class structure with a ruling family that claims power with a logic more akin to the divine right of kings than as the vanguard of the proletariat. Instead of advancing towards a communist utopia they regressed to a government recognizable to feudal Europe.
Similarly, the Soviet Union preached a world wide class struggle and the destruction of nation states. But when threatened by Hitler, Stalin quickly set that aside and urged his people to fight for Mother Russia in the Great Patriotic War.
That’s understandable, because communism is built on lies and failed economics. But it’s not just communist governments that abandon their ideals to maintain power. At the turn of the Eighteenth Century, Haiti was embroiled in the first successful slave revolt in the modern world. The liberated slaves outlawed slavery and massacred their former masters. Then the leaders of the revolt, former slaves themselves, quickly reintroduced slavery under a different name.
The French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity turned into the Great Terror and dictatorship in just a few years.
Time after time, revolutionary zeal was set aside in the name of preserving power. I don’t know about North Korea’s Kims, but I have no doubt the leaders of the Soviet, Haitian, and French revolutions truly believed in the ideals they fought for. Some were evil (communism) and some were noble (anti-slavery, liberty), but when push came to shove, power trumped them all.
So what does this say about our American Revolution?
There were some close calls in the early years – numerous times when our experiment in democracy could have collapsed. That America managed to not only maintain our love of liberty, but expand it, is a testament to the Founding Fathers and the example they set.
But freedom once gained is not secure for all time. There is a natural tendency to slide back into authoritarianism, each step easier and quicker than the last.
When Robespierre ordered mass executions, he did not consider himself evil; he was merely doing what was necessary.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying anyone in America is even close to carrying out a Great Terror. But Robespierre didn’t get his start with the guillotine. First came numerous compromises with the ideals of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. First came regulating what people could or could not say. First came arresting political opponents. First came the decision that liberty could only be preserved with illiberal means.
Once the defenders of freedom decided they had to fight fire with fire, once they resolved to use the power they had gained to suppress their opponents instead of building up their society, once they decided to mirror their enemies in order to defeat them, it was only a matter of time before the French Republic would return to despotism.
I don’t think America will fall into a dictatorship in my lifetime. But liberty is exceedingly hard to maintain. Self-government takes a lot of work. We are naturally inclined to want the things we like supported and the things we dislike banned.
I have visceral anger to seeing someone burn the American flag. When I saw the video of someone punching Nazi-wannabe Richard Spencer in the face, part of me smiled. Whatever their justifications, when I see NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, I take it as an obvious sign of disrespect to the country I love and I want it to stop.
These are natural reactions. It is also natural to want the government to ban flag burning, to cheer on those who shut up peddlers of hate by whatever means, and to demand well paid athletes be punished if they don’t stand for the country that has given them so much.
But, as mentioned above, big government and authoritarianism is also natural. That is why the revolutionary governments dedicated to high ideals mentioned at the start of this post quickly descended into terror and control.
To save and maintain our democracy, we need to do what is hard. We need to treat freedom of speech as sacrosanct, even when the other side doesn’t. We need to respect the separation of power, even when the other side doesn’t. We need to hold high standards of moral decency, even when the other side doesn’t. We need to fight for the truth, not whatever claim will support our argument, even when the other side doesn’t.
In fact, these things are all the more important when the other side has chosen to ignore them. If both sides of an argument abandon the principles of liberty, we may never get them back.
Power is natural. Control is natural. Liberty takes effort and care. If we don’t resist our natural urges, we may wake up one day to find the American Revolution has gone the same way as the French.