But this kind of faith is overblown. Unfortunately, American history is filled with periods where our democracy has failed us. The body count is immense.
Start with the Civil War, a failure unlike any other that the country has experienced. The war stemmed from a cancer that was in our democracy from the start—slavery—and then grew out of the inability of Northern politicians to find a way to end this system without the use of military force, and the intransigence of Southern leaders. Legislative debates, half-baked compromises, and incremental changes were unable to bring racial oppression to a peaceful end. The Civil War is a permanent reminder of how American institutions can fall apart.
The Civil War was followed by another catastrophic failure—the drive for racial equality. In the aftermath of the Civil War, some champions of Reconstruction believed that the nation could correct itself by guaranteeing the political and economic rights of African Americans. The first blow to this promise came with the early end of Reconstruction, an unfinished federal effort to achieve racial justice. Reconstruction was followed by the reimposition of racial hierarchies through the establishment of Jim Crow laws in Southern states, as well as through de facto segregation in the North. Legally sanctioned racial inequality lasted for more than half a century until the civil-rights movement finally pressured Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But even these gains were limited. Congress did not address most forms of institutional racism. While the failure of Governor George Wallace’s presidential candidacy in 1968 offered some Americans hope that open racism would not become normalized in partisan warfare, today racist dog whistles have given way to bull horns in mainstream politics, starting at the top. In their trenchant history of the United States in the 20th century, the historians Glenda Gilmore and Thomas Sugrue argue that America has steadily become less equal and more segregated since the 1960s.
The collapse of McCarthyism in 1954 is often held up as a paradigmatic example of self-correction. The system stopped Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and his devastating smear attacks against liberal Americans he accused of being communists, or so the story goes. The climactic moment in this narrative took place in the summer of 1954, when the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, representing the U.S. Army, finally stood up to the rabid senator on television and asked: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Soon after, McCarthy’s career spun out of control.
The problem is that this story downplays years of support from Republican politicians when it served their political purposes, and the fact that even after McCarthy himself was discredited, his brand of red-baiting never really went out of fashion on either side of the aisle. Some Democratic leaders, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, drew on his tactics by accusing left-wing anti-war protesters and aggrieved urban citizens swept up into the riots of having ties to the Kremlin. And anti-Communist attacks have remained a staple of modern Republican political rhetoric, as if any association with socialism taints people and ideas. Opponents of health-care proposals, from Medicare in 1965 through the Affordable Care Act in 2010, have thrown around the term socialized medicine as the main reason national benefits should be rejected. As a backbencher in the 1980s, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia made a name for himself by appearing on the C-SPAN network to stick verbal tar and feathers on Democrats like Majority Leader and later Speaker of the House Jim Wright. He said that because Democrats opposed assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras, they were sympathetic to socialism. President George H. W. Bush, under the direction of Lee Atwater, attacked Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign for being a “card-carrying member” of the ACLU, offering an updated version of McCarthyite innuendo. During the 2008 election, long after the Cold War ended, the right-wing television provocateur Glenn Beck liked to ask if Barack Obama was a socialist, and in 2018, Fox News is having a field day with the success of democratic socialists in congressional races.