I’m 41 years old, which doesn’t feel that old to me (most days), but history is short. With the exception of those trapped behind the Iron Curtain, the world as I have known it has been remarkably free and prosperous, and it is getting more free and more prosperous. But it is also a fact that, within my lifetime, there have been dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Poland, India, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, and half of Germany — and lots of other places, too, to be sure, but you sort of expect them in Cameroon and Russia. If I were only a few years older, I could add France to that list. (You know how you can tell that Charles de Gaulle was a pretty good dictator? He’s almost never described as a “dictator.”) There have been three attempted coups d’état in Spain during my life. Take the span of my father’s life and you’ll find dictatorships and coups and generalissimos rampant in practically every country, even the nice ones, like Norway.
That democratic self-governance is a historical anomaly is easy to forget for those of us in the Anglosphere — we haven’t really endured a dictator since Oliver Cromwell. The United States came close, first under Woodrow Wilson and then during the very long presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Both men were surrounded by advisers who admired various aspects of authoritarian models then fashionable in Europe. Rexford Tugwell, a key figure in Roosevelt’s so-called brain trust, was particularly keen on the Italian fascist model, which he described as “the cleanest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen.” And the means by which that social hygiene was maintained? “It makes me envious,” he said. That envy will always be with us, which is one of the reasons why progressives work so diligently to undermine the separation of powers, aggrandize the machinery of the state, and stifle criticism of the state. We’ll always have our Hendrik Hertzbergs — but who could say the words “Canadian dictatorship” without laughing a little? As Tom Wolfe put it, “The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”
Why is that? Is there something magical about Albion’s seed — Protestantism? the English language itself? the combination of the two in the King James Bible? — that inoculates the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand against the European intellectual disease? That disease mutates every 20 years, but the primordial strain of the virus is always identifiable: more power, centralized power, consolidated power. If you were observing Earth from space, or from Rome during the reign of Hadrian, you would not be likely to think of England as the planet’s great mover and shaker; it is just a little island sneered at by Europe’s great men as “a nation of shopkeepers.” But culture and history are sensitive to initial conditions, and somewhere between the drafting of the Magna Carta and the invention of the first power loom, a British butterfly flapped its wings in the right way at the right moment, and the deeply intertwined phenomena of the Industrial Revolution and the liberty revolution emerged together, creating an entirely new kind of civilization, one that showed the world that it is indeed a glorious thing to be a nation of shopkeepers. Walk through modern-day London, or drive through Houston, and see how their shopkeepers are keeping themselves — most of them won’t even bother to sneer at the memory of Napoleon and his grubby little wars.