I was just thinking about this because I was reading a review article by Keith Thomas about the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. After noting that for generations English people argued passionately about what the Civil War meant and whether Cavaliers or Roundheads were in the right,
Today that passion has largely disappeared. In British secondary schools Hitler and Stalin have long replaced Charles I and Cromwell as the most popular subjects of study, and in the universities the seventeenth century no longer attracts the best young historical talents. The diminishing band who continue to write about the period have largely discarded the grand narratives of liberty and revolution. They no longer believe that two sides in the war were divided by great differences, whether social or ideological. Clear-cut interpretations of the conflict have given way to a complex and confusing story of contingency, accident, and unintended consequences.Well. What is one to make of the assertion that Charles I and the men who cut off his head were not "divided by great differences"?
It is true that modern scholarship has eroded many generalizations once made about the two sides. They were not drawn from different social classes, the religious differences are hard to pin down, and men on both sides had a variety of views about the proper powers of king and Parliament. And yet, one faction set themselves against the sort of government England had known for a thousand years, denounced as so much devilry all of the theological and philosophical arguments built up during that millennium to justify kingship, and cut off their sovereign's head. They certainly thought they were participating in an event of very great importance. Some of them were heard to remark that the establishment of the Godly commonwealth was the most important event since the resurrection of Christ. Others were, as is often said, "reluctant revolutionaries," but faced with a king who would not bow to their wishes they eventually agreed to cut of his head rather than submit to his demands.
How much does politics matter? In some of my moods I dismiss our electioneering as irrelevant to what makes up a fulfilling life, and I marvel at people who think that some political change will make them happy. I have a sense that the extreme politics of the early twentieth century, fascism and communism and so on, were an almost desperate attempt to make political action matter in a profound way. For those who really want to change the world, the average debate in the average parliament is a trivial bit of basket weaving.
Yet I know that in another sense this is radically short-sighted. The world I live in is very much a political creation, from the public schools my children attend to my right to blaspheme. If any one election has little impact, that is because the great mass of opinion has shifted together, binding the hands of even those politicians who would like to undertake radical reforms. Taken together, the political reforms of the past 200 years have had a gigantic impact on our lives.
Even changes that strike the big picture historian as trivial can matter a lot for some people. Consider the draconian "Three Strikes" law approved by California voters in 1994, after a parolee abducted and murdered Polly Klaas, and undone by them last week. This law lasted but 18 years and was not consistently applied, but it still sent thousands of petty criminals to prison for life. If a thousand men spend a decade in prison, does that count as a significant event?
Florida's butterfly ballots and hanging chads may not have made a huge difference in the US, they certainly had an enormous impact in Iraq, where 100,000 civilians were killed in Bush's quixotic attempt to create a shining model of Arab democracy.
If, as I often think, the stakes in our elections are small compared to the rhetoric, that is actually a triumph for our system. In other circumstances, political differences that seem less than great to historians can lead to civil war. The rhetoric of the 1640s was exaggerated and overheated in the same way that ours is, and perhaps the divide between the two sides was no greater. Yet with no system in place to moderate the conflict, and no options but to submit to the king or kill him, that divide proved fatal for thousands. The paranoia and rage spewing from well-fed Americans with no problems to speak of reminds us that extreme thinking has a deep and eternal appeal. This is why those who care about preserving our civilization should look for common ground rather than exaggerating our differences, prefer compromise to victory, and remind ourselves often that we are all in this together.