As a historian, I'm a firm believer that history rarely repeats itself and I am especially suspicious of assertions which root their authority in historical analogies. The past few weeks have seen a number of arguments by analogy, especially in relation to the same-sex marriage debate here in Massachusetts so you'll have to humor me for posting something that isn't related to Boston's history. I'll make it up to you all soon, I promise.
Gregg Jackson at Pundit Review has posted an item emailed to him which purports to critique the development of democracy in the United States using an analysis of Athenian democracy created by a Scottish writer in the 18th century, with predictably dire implications. Jackson's conclusion? "....it becomes clear that we are, indeed, half way down what Hayak refered to as the 'road to serfdom.' Will history repeat itself or will we learn from it and ensure that it doesn’t?"
The only problem (well, not the only problem, as the "Hayak" he refers to is no doubt Friedrich Hayek) is that the item Gregg Jackson has posted is almost completely and demonstrably false. One would have thought that the claim in the piece he cites that Bush won 29 states and Gore 19 won states in the 2000 presidential election (which was my initial clue that something was wrong, given that there are in fact 50 states) would have tipped him off that something was amiss in the analysis.
The purported quotes from "Alexander Tyler"(the historian's name is actually Alexander Tytler) cited in the piece Jackson posted are interesting: "A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government." If this had been in fact written in 1787 (it wasn't, as an analysis of Tytler's writings show he never wrote the words attributed to him), Tyler's sample size of democracies would not have been very large (one democracy does not make the case), so a different strategy is chosen in the next paragraph, where "Tyler" writes, "The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years." One can only wonder what the author considers the world's greatest civilizations. Egyptian dynasties certainly lasted longer than this, as did various Chinese dynasties and the Incans and the Mayans had a pretty good run as well. The Venetian Republic lasted well over 200 years. What was the author of the piece Jackson cites was actually thinking? Certainly he or she wasn't thinking about history. My guess is that the author was thinking that the United States is a little over two hundred years old, or would soon be and the author didn't like the direction the United States was heading so a little scare tactic from the past might help the conservative cause. For more about the alleged "Tyler" quotes, be sure to read this.
A far more interesting depiction of the rise and fall of democracies can be found in Thomas Cole's series of paintings, The Course of Empire. You can read a little more about The Course of Empire here.
Update: But no, you can't tell a conservative that they're wrong. Gregg Jackson responds only to conclude that even though almost everything in the email that he posted was false, his conclusions are still valid. I would imagine this includes his cliched warning "Will history repeat itself or will we learn from it and ensure that it doesn’t?" Gee, since I have shown the history Gregg cites to be false, why would we want to learn from it? What lessons can possibly be drawn? The only lesson I think we've learned is that Gregg Jackson can't be trusted with history. It is this type of sloppy research and analysis that has become the hallmark of conservative bloggers who think analogy suffices for argument. If Gregg actually knew history, instead of mindlessly posting what others send him, he would have seen the problems with the email from his friend and never have posted it, much less based his own dire predictions on it.
What I find most interesting is his claim that he only learned of the problems with what he posted yesterday. This, despite a few visits in the last two weeks from Pundit Review's own traffic logs to my original post. Either Gregg is lying or whoever handles Pundit Review's traffic analysis didn't care enough about accuracy to inform him of the problems with his post. Why am I not surprised?