Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What Happens to Democracy?

One of the more intriguing questions about politics today is “What happens after democracy?” Some ask this question out of curiosity; some out of fear. The fearful are concerned that democratic governments have become unstable.

In our 21st Century world, democracies predominate. This is explained by the fact that democracies, and their partner capitalism, have been more efficient at delivering goods and services than other government forms, making them the preferred model in the modern and postmodern world.

Lately, democracy is showing its age, and its governments are less able to “govern.” Tribalism, generated by ideological polarization prevents legislatures from acting for the good of the people. Candidates are selected by the elite class to perpetuate elite control. Lobbyists, under control of the elites, replace the will of the people. The people are less engaged and easily influenced by elite messaging.

How to we fit the current situation into the history of politics? A logical place to start is the work of Polybius.

Polybius was a Greek historian, who lived from 200 BC to 118 BC. He was taken as a hostage by the Romans in 167 BC and was held in Rome for 17 years. Polybius later become an associate of Scipio Aemilius, the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. As an observer of Rome and Greece, Polybius wrote about political systems: their origin, structure, and stability. He created a cycle of governments to describe the forces that change societies from one form to another.

The cycle is Monarchy – Kingship – Tyranny – Aristocracy – Oligarchy – Democracy.

Monarchies appear by the natural and unaided rise in power of individuals who impress their people with leadership skills. As long as man has lived in groups, they have been led by those who, by intelligence or charisma, rise to the top. Monarchies first appeared after the beginning of agriculture in 3000 BC, because a hierarchical structure was needed to govern large groups of human beings. Monarchies were the government of choice for 4500 years until the Enlightenment. Some monarchies become kingships; a transition that occurred when leaders began to govern by fear rather than the approval of their people.

When kings became tyrants, they fell and were replaced by an aristocracy made up of wealthy and powerful elites, who exerted control to preserve their status. In time, the aristocracy saw its power concentrated in few leaders, and transitioned to an oligarchy (rule of few). The oligarchy fell when the people became tired of unjust rule. To replace the oligarchies, people demanded democracies. Democracies prosper as long as traditions, and commitment to justice, remain strong. When those characteristics die away, the cycle moves back to a monarchy. The people replace an unworkable system with one person they can trust.

If you think these concepts are fanciful and unrealistic, consider the following examples.

In Ancient Greece, the Mycenaean kings were replaced by an aristocracy, which became an oligarchy before it was a democracy. Tyrants popped up a from time to time, during the period of aristocracies, when the aristocracies failed to govern.

Ancient Rome was first ruled by monarchs, who became kings and then tyrants. They were replaced by an aristocracy (the patricians), who transitioned to an oligarchy. Rome never achieved a transition to democracy because dictators took control and created an empire.

The United States, as a child of the Enlightenment, did not have to endure a monarchy. It started as an aristocracy, transitioned to an oligarchy, during the time of the Federalists, and then became a democracy.

Polybius created his theory before the concept of collectivism/socialism developed, so there is no socialist model in the cycle. The most important socialist systems, Russia and China, developed from feudal systems so they don’t fit conveniently there.

Cuba serves as an interesting example. Castro overthrew a dictator (tyrant) to gain power. The step to aristocracy was interrupted by his revolution. At the time, Cuba was weak economically, so one might consider it a feudal state. Castro was propped up by money from the Soviet Union for decades. Without that help, he would not have been able to implement his Communist model.

If we trust Polybius and imagine what would happen if some democracies fail over the next decades, their replacement will feature concentrated power, because concentrated power can govern more efficiently than a democracy. The replacements will authoritarian leaders or dictators.

3 comments:

James Tech said...

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JPChapleau said...

Very well thought-out post. I will have to read more of his writings. A similar argument, though simpler is presented by Herodotus in the Histories... But I like the model you presented here more.

John Shaw said...

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