The twentieth century has no doubt been, as Isaiah Berlin has said, "the most terrible century in Western history." But this terrible century has—or appears to be having—a happy ending. As in melodramas of old, the maiden democracy, bound by villains to the railroad track, is rescued in the nick of time from the onrushing train. As the century draws to a close, both major villains have perished, fascism with a bang, communism with a whimper.

A season of triumphalism has followed. Two centuries ago Kant argued in his Idea for a Universal History that the republican form of government was destined to supersede all others. At last the prophecy seemed on the way to fulfillment. Savants hailed "the end of history." "For the first time in all history," President Clinton declared in his second inaugural address, "more people on this planet live under democracy than dictatorship." The New York Times, after careful checking, approved: 3.1 billion people live in democracies, 2.66 billion do not. According to end-of-history doctrine as expounded by its prophet, the minority can look forward to "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

For historians, this euphoria rang a bell of memory. Did not the same radiant hope accompany the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century? This most terrible hundred years in Western history started out in an atmosphere of optimism and high expectations. People of good will in 1900 believed in the inevitability of democracy, the invincibility of progress, the decency of human nature, and the coming reign of reason and peace. David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, expressed the mood in his turn-of-the-century book The Call of the Twentieth Century. "The man of the Twentieth Century," Jordan predicted, "will be a hopeful man. He will love the world and the world will love him."

Looking back, we recall a century marked a good deal less by love than by hate, irrationality, and atrocity, one that for a long dark passage inspired the gravest forebodings about the very survival of the human race. Democracy, striding confidently into the 1900s, found itself almost at once on the defensive. The Great War, exposing the pretension that democracy would guarantee peace, shattered old structures of security and order and unleashed angry energies of revolution—revolution not for democracy but against it. Bolshevism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, militarism in Japan all despised, denounced, and, wherever they could, destroyed individual rights and the processes of self-government.

In another decade the Great Depression came along to expose the pretension that democracy would guarantee prosperity. A third of the way into the century, democracy seemed a helpless thing, spiritless, paralyzed, doomed. Contempt for democracy spread among elites and masses alike: contempt for parliamentary dithering, for "talking-shops," for liberties of expression and opposition, for bourgeois civility and cowardice, for pragmatic muddling through.

In another decade the Second World War threatened to administer the coup de grace. Liberal society, its back to the wall, fought for its life. There was considerable defeatism in the West. The title of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's 1940 bestseller proclaimed totalitarianism The Wave of the Future. It was, she wrote, a "new, and perhaps even ultimately good, conception of humanity trying to come to birth." Hitlerism and Stalinism were merely "scum on the wave of the future . . . The wave of the future is coming and there is no fighting it." By 1941 only about a dozen democracies were left on the planet.

The political, economic, and moral failures of democracy had handed the initiative to totalitarianism. Something like this could happen again. If liberal democracy fails in the 21st century, as it failed in the twentieth, to construct a humane, prosperous, and peaceful world, it will invite the rise of alternative creeds apt to be based, like fascism and communism, on flight from freedom and surrender to authority.

After all, democracy in its modern version—representative government, party competition, the secret ballot, all founded on guarantees of individual rights and freedoms—is at most 200 years old. A majority of the world's inhabitants may be living under democracy in 1997, but democratic hegemony is a mere flash in the long vistas of recorded history. One wonders how deeply democracy has sunk roots in previously non-democratic countries in the years since the collapse of the totalitarian challenges. Now the democratic adventure must confront tremendous pent-up energies that threaten to blow it off course and even drive it onto the rocks.


Much of this energy is pent up within democracy itself. The most fateful source in the United States is race. "The problem of the twentieth century," W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1900, "is the problem of the color line." His prediction will come to full flower in the 21st century. Minorities seek full membership in the larger American society. Doors slammed in their faces drive them to protest. The revolt against racism has taken time to gather strength. White America belatedly awakens to the cruelties long practiced against nonwhite peoples, and the revolt intensifies. As Tocqueville explained long ago, "Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds. For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to others, and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated."

There are other pent-up energies. Modern democracy itself is the political offspring of technology and capitalism, the two most dynamic—that is to say, destabilizing—forces loose in the world today. Both are driven ever onward by self-generated momentum that strains the bonds of social control and of political sovereignty.

Technology created the clock, the printing press, the compass, the steam engine, the power loom, and the other innovations that laid the foundation for capitalism and that in time generated rationalism, individualism, and democracy. At first technological advance was unsystematic and intermittent. Soon it was institutionalized. "The greatest invention of the nineteenth century," said Alfred North Whitehead, "was the invention of the method of invention."

In the twentieth century, scientific and technological innovation increased at an exponential rate. Henry Adams, the most brilliant of American historians, meditated on the acceleration of history. "The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900," Adams wrote in 1909, "but, measured by any standard . . . the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a thousand times greater in 1900 than in 1800;—the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time." Nothing, Adams thought, could slow this process, for "the law of acceleration . . . cannot be supposed to relax its energy to suit the convenience of man."

The law of acceleration now hurtles us into a new age. The shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is more traumatic even than our great-grandparents' shift from a farm-based to a factory-based economy. The Industrial Revolution extended over generations and allowed time for human and institutional adjustment. The Computer Revolution is far swifter, more concentrated, and more drastic in its impact.


The computerized world poses problems for democracy. Where the Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it destroyed, the Computer Revolution threatens to destroy more jobs than it creates. It also threatens to erect new and rigid class barriers, especially between the well-educated and the ill-educated. Economic inequality has already grown in the United Stares to the point where disparities are greater in egalitarian America than in the class-ridden societies of Europe. Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker and rescuer of a bankrupt New York City, speaks of the "huge transfers of wealth from lower-skilled middle-class workers to the owners of capital assets and to a new technological aristocracy." Those who skip or flunk the computer will fall into the Blade Runner proletariat, a snarling, embittered, violent underclass.

The computer will also affect the procedures of democratic politics. James Madison in The Federalist Papers distinguished between "pure democracy," by which he meant a system in which citizens assemble and administer the government in person, and a republic, by which he meant a system in which the majority expresses its will through "a scheme of representation." For most of American history, "pure democracy" was necessarily limited to town meetings in small villages. Now the interactivity introduced by the Computer Revolution makes "pure democracy" technically feasible on a national scale.

Brian Beedham in an article in the December 21, 1996, Economist applauds this development, claiming representative democracy is "a half-finished thing." Every citizen, Beedham argues, is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. The rise of public opinion polls, focus groups, and referendums suggests popular demand for a finished democracy. With a nation of computers plugged into information and communication networks, "full democracy" is just around the corner. Full democracy, pure democracy, plebiscitary democracy, direct democracy, cyberdemocracy, the electronic town hall: under whatever name, is this a desirable prospect?

Perhaps not. Interactivity encourages instant responses, discourages second thoughts, and offers outlets for demagoguery, egomania, insult, and hate. Listen to talk radio! In too interactive a polity, a '"common passion," as Madison thought, could sweep through a people and lead to emotional and ill-judged actions. Remembering the explosion of popular indignation when President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, one is grateful that the electronic town hall was not running the country in 1951. The Internet has done little thus far to foster the reasoned exchanges that in Madison's words "refine and enlarge the public views."


While the onrush of technology creates new substantive problems and promises to revise the political system through which we deal with them, the onrush of capitalism may have even more disruptive consequences. Let us understand the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Democracy is impossible without private ownership because private property—resources beyond the arbitrary reach of the state—provides the only secure basis for political opposition and intellectual freedom. But the capitalist market is no guarantee of democracy, as Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew, Pinochet, and Franco, not to mention Hitler and Mussolini, have amply demonstrated. Democracy requires capitalism, but capitalism does not require democracy, at least in the short run.

Capitalism has proved itself the supreme engine of innovation, production, and distribution. But its method, as it careens ahead, heedless of little beyond its own profits, is what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." In its economic theory, capitalism rests on the concept of equilibrium. In practice, its very virtues drive it toward disequilibrium. This is the dilemma of contemporary conservatism. The unfettered market conservatives worship undermines the values—stability, morality, family, community, work, discipline, delayed gratification—conservatives avow. The glitter of the marketplace, the greed, the short-termism, the exploitation of prurient appetites, the ease of fraud, the devil-take-the-hindmost ethos—all these are at war with purported conservative ideals. "Stationary capitalism," as Schumpeter said, "is a contradiction in terms."

Even premier capitalists are appalled by what runaway capitalism has wrought. If understanding of capitalism can be measured by success in making money out of it, no one understands contemporary capitalism better than the financier and philanthropist George Soros. "Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets," Soros writes, "I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society." The "uninhibited pursuit of self-interest," Soros continues, results in "intolerable inequities and instability."

The Computer Revolution offers wondrous new possibilities for creative destruction. One goal of capitalist creativity is the globalized economy. One—unplanned—candidate for capitalist destruction is the nation-state, the traditional site of democracy. The computer turns the untrammeled market into a global juggernaut crashing across frontiers, enfeebling national powers of taxation and regulation, undercutting national management of interest rates and exchange rates, widening disparities of wealth both within and between nations, dragging down labor standards, degrading the environment, denying nations the shaping of their own economic destiny, accountable to no one, creating a world economy without a world polity. Cyberspace is beyond national control. No authorities exist to provide international control. Where is democracy now?


The end of the Eurocentric era raises further problems for democracy. Self-government, individual rights, equality before the law are European inventions. Now the age of the Pacific is upon us. The breakthrough of Japan in the century coming to an end heralds the breakthrough of China and India in the century ahead. The economic magnetism of Asia is already altering the contours of the global economy, and foreshadows historic shifts in the planetary balance of power.

I am not greatly concerned about the "clash of civilizations" that worries some thoughtful analysts. Civilizations are rarely unified. Countries within the same civilization are more likely to fight with each other than to join in monolithic assaults on other civilizations. But the impact of the rise of Asia on the future of democracy is worth consideration. The Asian tradition, we are told, values the group more than the individual, order more than argument, authority more than liberty, solidarity more than freedom. Some Asian leaders, notably Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia, love to contrast Asian discipline and stability with the disorder and decadence they impute to the individualistic West. They denounce the attempt to hold Asian countries to Western democratic standards as the new form of Western imperialism.

Nevertheless, both India and Japan are functioning democracies. If the claim that human rights are universal is proof of Western arrogance, the restriction of those rights to Europe and the Americas brands non-Western peoples as lesser breeds incapable of appreciating personal liberty and self-government, and that is surely Western arrogance too. In fact, many Asians fight for human rights, and at the risk of their freedom and their lives. "Why do we assume," asks Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, "that Lee Kuan Yew is the embodiment of Asian values rather than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," the courageous opposition leader under prolonged house arrest in Burma? A pre-Tiananmen Square wall poster in Beijing proclaimed: "We cannot tolerate that human rights and democracy are only slogans of the Western bourgeoisie and the Eastern proletariat only needs dictatorship." In the words of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, "The so-called Asian values that are invoked to justify authoritarianism are not especially Asian in any significant sense." Chris Patten concludes, "I think the Asian value debate is piffle. What are these Asian values? When you home in on what one or two Asian leaders mean by them, what they actually mean is that anyone who disagrees with me should shut up."

Still, the new salience of Asia on the world scene, the absence of historical predilections for democracy, and the self-interest of rulers who see democracy as a threat to their power suggest a period of Asian resistance to the spread of the democratic idea.


That resistance will be reinforced by the defensive reaction around the planet to relentless globalization—a reaction that takes the form of withdrawal from modernity. The world today is torn in opposite directions. Globalization is in the saddle and rides mankind, but at the same time drives people to seek refuge from its powerful forces beyond their control and comprehension. They retreat into familiar, intelligible, protective units. They crave the politics of identity. The faster the world integrates, the more people will huddle in their religious or ethnic or tribal enclaves. Integration and disintegration feed on each other.

A militant expression of what Samuel Huntington calls cultural backlash is the upsurge of religious fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism seems especially hostile to freedom of expression, to women's rights, and, contrary to historical Islam, to other religions. Nor is the fundamentalist revival confined to the Third World. Many people living lives of quiet desperation in modern societies hunger for transcendent meaning and turn to inerrant faith for solace and support.

According to a 1995 Gallup poll, more than a third of American adults claim that God speaks to them directly. One hopes it is the God of love rather than the God of wrath on the other end of the line. Fundamentalism, carried too far, has ominous implications for democracy. Those who believe they are executing the will of the Almighty are notably harsh on non-believers. A fanatic, as the Irish-American wit Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley once observed, "does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts in th' case." Fanaticism is the mortal enemy of democracy.

Back to the question: Has democracy a future? Yes, Virginia, it does, but not the glorious future predicted in the triumphalist moment. Democracy has survived the twentieth century by the skin of its teeth. It will not enjoy a free ride through the century to come.

In America, democracy must run a gauntlet of challenges. The most crucial is still Du Bois' color line. Much depends on the availability of jobs, especially in the inner city. If employment remains high, political action will mitigate racial tensions, particularly when minorities understand that in the longer run ethnic gerrymandering will reduce, not increase, their influence. Tension will be mitigated even more by intermarriage. Sex—and love—between people of different creeds and colors can probably be counted on to arrest the disuniting of America.

The national capacity to absorb and assimilate newcomers will remain powerful. The call of the mainstream will appeal far more than linguistic or ethnic ghettos, above all to the young. English will continue the dominant language. Indeed, in essentials the national character will be recognizably much as it has been for a couple of centuries. People seeking clues to the American mystery will still read, and quote, Tocqueville.

Technology will rush on according to Adams' law of acceleration. But for all the temptations of interactivity and all the unpopularity of elected officials, I doubt that Americans will sanction the degradation of representative democracy into a system of plebiscites. Capitalism too will careen on, through downs as well as ups, but laissez-faire ideology will probably wane as capitalists discover the range of troubles the unfettered market cannot solve, or makes worse. Unbridled capitalism, with low wages, long hours, and exploited workers, excites social resentment, revives class warfare, and infuses Marxism with new life. To move along constructive lines, capitalism must subordinate short-term plans and profits to such long-term social necessities as investment in education, research and development, environmental protection, the extension of health care, the rehabilitation of infrastructure, the redemption of the city. Capitalists are not likely to do this by themselves. Long-term perspectives demand public leadership and affirmative government.

In the world at large, can capitalism, once loose from national moorings, be held to social accountability? Will international institutions acquire the authority to impose, for example, a global SEC? This won't happen next week, but continuing abuse of power will build a constituency for reform. Wars will still disturb the tenor of life, but where in the past they generally arose from aggression across national frontiers, the wars of the 21st century will more likely be between ethnic, religious, ideological, or tribal factions within the same country. Such wars are harder to define and to control. Let us pray that no factional zealot gets hold of an atomic bomb.

Nation-states will continue to decline as effective power units: too small for the big problems, as the sociologist Daniel Bell has said, and too big for the small problems. Despite this decline, nationalism will persist as the most potent of political emotions. Whether democracy, a Western creation, can be transplanted to parts of the world with different cultures and traditions is far from certain. Yet I would expect a gradual expansion of democratic institutions and ideals. It is hard to believe that the instinct for political and intellectual freedom is limited to a happy few around the North Atlantic littoral.

Democracy in the 21st century must manage the pressures of race, of technology, and of capitalism, and it must cope with the spiritual frustrations and yearnings generated in the vast anonymity of global society. The great strength of democracy is its capacity for self-correction. Intelligent diagnosis and guidance are essential. "Perhaps no form of government," said the historian and diplomat Lord Bryce, "needs great leaders so much as democracy." Yet even the greatest of democratic leaders lack the talent to cajole violent, retrograde, and intractable humankind into utopia. Still, with the failures of democracy in the twentieth century at the back of their minds, leaders in the century to come may do a better job than we have done of making the world safe for democracy.

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  • ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., is a writer, historian, and former Special Assistant to President Kennedy. This article is based on the James Bryce Lecture on the American Commonwealth, to be delivered at the Institute of United States Studies of the University of London in September.
  • More By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.