I Have a Handle on History. The Future Is a Different Story.

Recently, on Twitter, the political scientist Lee Drutman issued a challenge to his followers and readers.

“I’m all for envisioning doomsday scenarios so we can better prepare to avoid them,” he wrote. “But I’d also like to read more scenarios about how American democracy improves, and really specific scenarios, not the hand-wave-y stuff about how Americans put aside their differences.”

Since I am also inclined to think about doomsday scenarios for American democracy, I thought this was a useful exercise. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed. I have many ideas for how we might improve democracy in the United States, but it is genuinely difficult for me to envision the path from A to B, from the status quo — with its entrenched interests and strong bias against change — to something more equal and inclusive.

With that said, in thinking through Drutman’s question, I reminded myself of a truism that’s worth repeating here: For as much as we might predict and project, the future is, and always will be, an undiscovered country.

We imagine the road ahead of us as a clear path. We seem to forget that, no matter how strong our powers of perception, we can’t actually see every obstacle in our way, predict the detours we’ll have to take or know when events force us on a different route entirely.

Another way to think of this is that no one in 1928 had any inkling of what the next 20 years would bring. In retrospect, of course, we can see the lines leading to depression and war, and the transformation of the world economic and political order. But in the moment, we’re all moving blind.

It is very possible, even likely, that American democracy continues on its present path to something dark and dangerous. That the authoritarian movement around Donald Trump continues to gain strength and that there’s little appetite among rival elites to do anything about it.

For as much as there are patterns and precedents, for as much as the past can be a guide to the future, it is also true that history turns on a dime, that something might happen — a crisis or a conflict or something else entirely — that sweeps the pieces from the board and begins the game anew.

I do not know how we get from the current morass to a healthy, robust democracy. But whatever force or event that brings us there, I do not think we’ll be able to see it in advance.

What I Wrote

My Tuesday column used the controversy over the term “Latinx” — or rather, the conversation over its impact on the electorate — to make a larger point about the things that actually drive American politics.

My Friday column was a related argument about power within the Democratic Party and who is responsible for the party’s recent (and lackluster) performance.

I was on the “You’re Wrong About” podcast giving listeners a brief overview of Reconstruction. And on the latest episode of my podcast, the journalist John Ganz and I discuss the 1987 thriller “No Way Out.”

Now Reading

Helen Christophi on a Justice Department counterterrorism expert with deep ties to organized white supremacists, for The Progressive magazine.

Imani Perry on Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s “Passing” in Harper’s Bazaar.

Charisse Burden-Stelly on “racial capitalism” in The Monthly Review.

Kambole Campbell on the 2010 film “Tron: Legacy” for Polygon.

Robert McCoy on the perils of internet fame for Slate.

Jeremy Gordon on The Beatles for Gawker.

Photo of the Week

Credit…Jamelle Bouie

We drove to South Carolina for Thanksgiving, and on the way back, we stopped for lunch and gas at this rest stop. I love scenes with big, bold primary colors and was compelled to take a photo. The blues and reds are very nice, I think.

Now Eating: Seared Salmon With Spinach and Creamy Roasted Peppers

This recipe is from one of the mainstays of my kitchen, Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Everyday.” It’s very simple, very straightforward and very quick — from opening the book to putting dinner on the table was about 45 minutes. If you want a spicier cream sauce, roast two jalapeños along with the poblanos (and be sure to remove the seeds). If you want a richer sauce, you can use half-and-half instead of milk.


  • 2 fresh poblano chiles

  • 10 ounces spinach, about 10 cups

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons masa harina

  • 1½ cups whole milk (or half-and-half), plus a little more if needed

  • 4 4- to 5-ounce skinless salmon fillets

  • salt and ground pepper


Roast the poblanos over an open flame or 4 inches below a broiler, turning regularly until blistered and blackened all over, about 5 minutes for an open flame, 10 minutes for the broiler. Place in a bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let cool until handleable.

Place the spinach in a microwaveable bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the top and microwave on high (100%) until completely wilted, usually about 2 minutes. Uncover and set aside.

Turn your stove to its lowest setting. Heat the oil in a very large (12-inch) skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium. Add the garlic and cook, stirring regularly, until soft and lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the garlic into a blender. Set the skillet aside.

Rub the blackened skin off the chiles and pull out the stems and seed pods. Rinse the chiles to remove bits of skin and seeds. Roughly chop and add to the blender, along with the masa harina and milk. Blend until smooth.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat. Sprinkle both sides of the fish liberally with salt and pepper. Lay the fillets in the hot oil and cook until richly browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to flip the fillets, and cook until the fish barely flakes when pressed firmly with a finger or the back of a spoon (you want it slightly underdone), usually a couple of minutes longer for fish that’s about 1 inch thick. Using the spatula, transfer the fish to an ovenproof plate and set in the oven.

With the skillet still over medium-high heat, pour in the poblano mixture and whisk until it comes to a boil and thickens, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes to blend the flavors. If the sauce has thickened past the consistency of a cream soup, whisk in a little more milk. Taste and season with salt, usually a generous ½ teaspoon.

Add the spinach to the sauce and stir until it is warm and well coated with sauce. Divide the creamy spinach among four plates. Top each portion with a piece of seared fish. (Or if it seems more appealing to you, spoon the sauce over the fillets.)

Serve without delay.

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