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Commentary: Keep the faith: History shows dark night of politics will end

For the first time, the United States has been added to the list of backsliding democracies. And majority of young people no longer believe that they will do better than their parents, a key indicator of faith in the American dream.

Few may doubt that the United States is in one of the darkest, most challenging times in its political history, one rife with cynicism and pessimism. Fourteen months after the election, many in the Republican Party still do not accept that Joe Biden won the presidential election of 2020.

But history shows that politics change, sometimes beyond expectations. Fewer than 10 years ago, few may have thought that American democracy would be as imperiled as it is now. Likewise, positive political shifts that were once hard to imagine have become widely accepted, including the abolition of slavery, universal adult suffrage and minimum wage.

Time and again, politics has changed in unlikely directions, sometimes resulting in heartening new political horizons.

In American politics, long periods of political order and stability are regularly followed by shorter bursts of significant political change. There have been six great political realignments in the history of American politics, and they have typically occurred during major crises such as the Great Depression or the Civil War.

Recognized realignments include the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which reversed a trend of growing national power and higher taxes that had dominated politics since the founding of the nation. Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828 led to universal suffrage for white males, increasing the electorate substantially.

Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 led to the abolition of slavery, and national power again became dominant when the Union prevailed over the Confederacy in the Civil War. Following William McKinley’s win in 1896, progressive reforms such as the federal income tax and antitrust laws were instituted to address a growing wealth gap.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election in 1932 led the national government to regulate the economy, creating a vast web of New Deal programs that established for the first time a social safety net for people devastated by the Great Depression. The funding for many of those programs was slashed and national power was devolved back to state and local governments after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980.

Adjustments in political times recur every 40 years or so in U.S. politics, and it is long overdue. The periods prior to realignment are typically quite politically unstable and politically divisive. For example, mob violence between pro and anti-slavery forces broke out prior to Lincoln’s election in a series of incidents known as “Bleeding Kansas,” which has been called a small civil war.

Food riots and labor strife were rising prior to McKinley’s election, due to the economic panic of 1893. Hunger marches and makeshift housing called “Hoovervilles” emerged across the nation, named as a jab at then President Herbert Hoover’s inability to address the economic fallout of the Great Depression prior to Franklin Roosevelt’s election.

Radical politics often become more visible in the mainstream. For instance, in “normal” times, it would be unusual in mainstream American politics for a Democratic socialist to gain as much traction as Sen. Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 presidential election, gaining over 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries.

It is quite possible that the United States is in the midst of a major political realignment.

Political history provides reasons for citizens to hold on through challenging political times. To be sure, it is hard to live through political instability, not knowing what will come next. But the certainty offered by cynicism and pessimism, however comforting in the short term, leads to political dead ends in the long run.

Historical patterns suggest that it is far better to have faith that this political darkness will end. But faith without works is not enough. Freedom from slavery, the minimum wage, and votes for women were only won after years of organizing, resistance and activism.

Cynicism and pessimism make such work impossible. Though it may be painful, democracy requires nothing less.

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Susan Burgess is a distinguished professor of political science at Ohio University, a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project. This editorial was originally written for the newsletter The Fulcrum.