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Historical comparisons have been in the news recently. There was the revelation that Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared former president Trump was looking for a “Reichstag moment” to launch a coup. And how about the revelation that Vladimir Putin’s support for Trump’s candidacy, on the grounds that the success of a “mentally unstable” candidate would undermine the West? In doing this, Putin was pursuing policies his Soviet predecessors had pursued with vigor since the 1920s.

There is also a  bigger point about the value of history at a moment when the Republican Party urges its constituents to forget things that have happened so recently. A coup attempt, and election meddling undermine our basic institutions, but to halt that process, it’s necessary to agree and admit that the move to illiberalism is really happening.  As Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger explained when he accepted a seat on the January 6th commission, “We need the facts — and we need to lay them out for the country to see for themselves and face them head on.” 

The consequences of failing to ascertain the facts can be severe. Many of the biggest historical changes, big disruptions that permanently alter a society, began with the collapse of confidence in central institutions and the disappearance of political middle ground that both the coup attempt and Russian disinformation promoted.

For example, it is commonly accepted that the collapse of the political center in Germany in 1932 paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power. Without viable centrist parties, German conservatives, unaware that the prospect of a Communist government had already ended when Stalin forbade German communists from aligning with more centrist parties on the left, believed they had to turn to the Nazis. Similarly, in the months preceding the outbreak of the Terror in 1794, Maximilian Robespierre steadily undermined the centrist party which commanded far more support from French voters in early 1793 than his own.  Once he succeeded in that, he could oversee the trial of Louis XVI, the king’s decapitation, and the mass executions of citizens deemed unworthy of participating in the virtuous new world he claimed to be creating.

The actual or perceived failure of a society’s core institutions opens space in which ideas that might seem downright odd to many people become credible and minor players rise to prominence. The semi-obscure Martin Luther’s attack on indulgences, the starting point of the Protestant Revolution which set off the development of modern Europe, was not completely new, but it was certainly way out of the mainstream in 1517. And although many Russian intellectuals were familiar with socialism prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the radical theory of revolution that Lenin espoused was novel. It was made even more so by the fact that Lenin was virtually unknown. Before 1917, he hadn’t lived in Russia for over a decade.

But what Lenin and Luther both understood was that to be effective, ultimately, they would have to dominate the available media with a message that activated discontented people. Their vision drowned out that of their rivals, sometimes in disingenuous ways. Lenin’s message in the summer of 1917—“peace, bread, land”—didn’t have a lot to do with his theory of revolution, but it resonated really well with a war-weary population.

The visible rise of fringe thinking, attached to issues that people genuinely worry about, is a sign that dominant groups are not responding to the lived experience of ordinary people. This is what has caused 21st-century conspiracy theories to become a strange form of news. QAnon can only flourish in an environment in which people have decided that the media lies, and that the government and elites have failed them. Americans who haven’t seen any real improvement in their living standards for decades, because their leaders have promoted fiscal policies to benefits investors over workers, are fed up. Monopolistic capitalism is an increasingly dominant force in today’s economy, while social welfare is sacrificed to corporate profits—and private adventures in outer space.

Disruptive change doesn’t have to be bad, of course. Some of the most important historical changes have come about because new kinds of consensus became possible.  The Roman emperor Constantine, who brought Christianity into the mainstream of Roman society, might be best understood as one of history’s first radical centrists. A decade earlier, Christianity was counter-culture enough that most Christians would have been appalled at the thought that their faith, which viewed all people as equal before God, could be reconciled with a rigidly hierarchical Roman society.  For Constantine, however, religious persecution was not compatible with functioning government: he incentivized conversion rather than insist upon it. Similarly,  Elizabeth I stabilized the Protestant Church of England (and her own reign) by permitting Catholic worship, while the caliph Abd Al-Malik stabilized an emergent Islamic state what is now Syria and Egypt) by adapting the teachings of Muhammad to a coherent ideology of government.

So what are the lessons for today?

First, that the rise of populist movements in the United States and Europe signals a strong need for positive disruption: transforming and defanging, the power of monopoly capitalism. The Biden administration, by focusing on policies that show a willingness to confront the inflated power of big tech is a good place to begin restoring social welfare and confidence in government. Second, Biden’s toned-down rhetoric opens up a middle ground where the extreme options voters are being given by left and right can be debated, modified, and acted on, not in the service of ideology but real-world solutions that, in turn, restore faith in government.

Biden’s instinct towards finding consensus in a fractured political world creates the positive disruption that can rebuild faith in the institutions of liberal democracy.

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David Potter is Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History at the University of Michigan; his most recent book is Disruption: Why Things Change, published by Oxford University Press

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