Yet it's surprising how many people out there (especially in the United States) seem to share the Whiggish belief that history is progressing in a smooth, straight line toward liberal democracy, the only form of political organization that makes sense to consenting adults. There are still plenty of people around who argue that "democracy is inevitable" (a phrase coined by sociologist Warren Bennis, who contended that democratic forms of decision-making were inherently more "efficient" than others).
You can hear a lot of similar views from tech mavens who argue that the possibilities for community action enabled by the decentralized Internet are the natural accelerants of democracy. Elites are doomed, and hierarchies will fall, we are told. Facebook and Twitter undermine censorship and undermine authoritarianism. Technology thus invariably smoothes the path toward participatory action.
There's just one catch to all of this: We're talking about people here, and whatever humans do rarely follows straight lines. Democracy is not the only ideal of action that inspires intense passion and engagement. So, too, do nationalism and religion -- forces that sometimes complement democracy, sometimes operate against it. Nor should one underestimate the deep human desire for predictability and good governance, which can sometimes trump the longing for transparency and agency. (The classic case here is Singapore, whose wealthy, hyper-educated citizenry has traditionally evinced little interest in the politics of opposition.)
Don't get me wrong: Democracy is what we should be striving for. But I think we make an enormous mistake when we try to lull ourselves into the conviction that we're "on the right side of history" by supporting liberal institutions and values. This sounds to me suspiciously like the naïve progressivism of the Victorians and their heirs, whose optimistic faith in the civilizing influence of modern technology crashed and burned in the inferno of the First World War. I don't think that history has an end to which everything necessarily tends. History is the sum of our actions. It's whatever we decide to make of it. Nothing is inevitable. To assume otherwise is to undermine the very sense of agency that lies at the basis of democracy.
What's more, working under the assumption that Providence favors your case can be outright dangerous, since it can cripple your powers of analysis. If you believe you're favored by the gods, you run a much greater risk of blundering into the traps set by devils. Lately I've been hearing lots of people here in Washington repeating that Vladimir Putin's regime has been enormously "weakened" or "undermined" by the protests in Russia's big cities last year. Putin's regime appeared so corrupt, so obviously stagnant, that his downfall seemed to be just around the corner (at least to some).