Recurring Dynamics of History

Activity 5: America Divided

Advances in agriculture led to larger human settlements. (CC)

Roughly two million years ago, a very odd animal appeared on the earth. It walked upright and had a brain that could think up amazing new ideas like spoken language and the use of fire. These creatures came to call themselves humans.

About 10,000 years ago, as the earth warmed after the last ice age, humans came up with the clever idea of planting crops to eat, and agriculture was born. Humans no longer had to follow the wandering animal herds; they could settle in one place and build villages, towns, and cities.

Historically, kingdoms are far more common than democracies.

Large groups of people living together required governments to provide an orderly way to make decisions and to maintain public order. Governments were headed by authoritarian rulers, usually kings.

Then, around 2,500 years ago, a few groups of people living on the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea had a different idea: Maybe people could govern themselves. Their pioneering experiments in democracy glowed brightly for a few hundred years and then flickered out.

But the idea of democracy didn't die. It smoldered beneath the surface for more than a millennium before it flared up again—once more on the northern shores of the Mediterranean—before it fell to a ruling monarchy. But, still, the idea of democracy refused to die.

Young U.S. Marines in a muddy trench in World War I, a war to make the world “safe for democracy” in the words of President Woodrow Wilson. (Archives Branch, USMC History Division, CC BY 2.0)

More than two centuries passed before democracy flamed to life again in a new nation on the far side of the world. This flame burned so intensely that it inspired other nations to join America's bold experiment in democracy. Since then, generations of Americans have fought and died to defend their democratic way of life.

Countless people in other societies—in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, China— also struggled to bring democracy to their homelands. Often they failed, and often they paid with their lives.

There is no doubt: History shows us that individual democracies are fragile; they have fallen repeatedly to authoritarian rulers. This is Recurring Dynamic of History. But history also shows us that the idea of democracy is strong. It has refused to die because something in the human brain and human heart longs for the powerful virtues of freedom and equality.

Today, many Americans are afraid their democracy might be slipping away; not due to a foreign threat, but due to divisions within our own country.


The Republican elephant versus the Democrat donkey (DonkeyHotey, CC BY 2.0)

The United States has been breaking apart politically. Politics that used to be partisan (people choosing to firmly support one political party or the other) have become tribal (our tribe good; your tribe bad). The two opposing tribes are the liberals (also called progressives) represented by the Democratic Party and the conservatives represented by the Republican Party. The tribes are pushing farther apart from one another, and moving closer to the poles of the political spectrum. Thus, the term polarization.

Changes to American society may be contributing to polarization. People of color are becoming a larger share of the U.S. population, which can make some white people uncomfortable. And social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have been spreading large quantities of divisive content that includes sensational and false information (which has helped the companies to make lots of money).

Many members of both tribes seem no longer willing to view members of the other tribe as honorable opponents who differ about what’s best for America—but as evil, frightening enemies out to destroy America. Polarization threatens democracy by pushing Americans toward the political extremes where authoritarian governments live.

In the next section, we’ll examine how the political parties have been weakening American democracy.

Check Your Understanding

  1. The reading (above) identifies this Recurring Dynamic of History: "Democracy is fragile; it has repeatedly fallen to authoritarian rulers." Compare this Recurring Dynamic of History to the one you developed earlier, after you read about the history of democracy.
  2. Why might it be said that democracy is both fragile like an egg and strong like a rock?
  3. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party and their supporters have been moving farther apart in recent years. What is this movement called?
  4. What two changes in American society might have pushed the political tribes farther apart?
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