The world, very much including the US, is confronting era-shaping challenges: global warming, pandemics, a major war in Europe, a belligerent China and louder domestic, sometimes violent, demands for more authoritarian and less democratic, governance. A noticeable trans-Atlantic political mood shift, reminiscent of the interwar period, is also underway; a time when religious and ethnic minorities, were political & physical targets and strong-man rule was ascendant. President Biden himself describes the choice American voters will face on 11/05/24 as between democracy and authoritarianism.
America in 2023 reflects a very strange sociopolitical reality, one which a columnist recently described as a “…digitally connected yet emotionally disjointed and spiritually unmoored society.“ The latter could explain why one of America’s two historically dominant political parties, has been co-opted by a radical authoritarian element, led by a charismatic demagogue.
While it retains the trappings of a certified US party, its irresponsible actions, disinterest in governing in accordance with the Constitution and resort to violent insurrection in 2021, are characteristic of mass movements pursuing political power to rule. Over the past 3-5 years, it has also acquired the patina of a personality cult.
Other established democratic governments are experiencing similar internal anti-democratic pressures. Germany’s electoral politics now includes a relatively new political party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany). Its platform includes Islamophobia, anti-immigration, hyper-nationalism and climate-change denial. Over 8 years, it has won enough seats in the Bundestag to threaten the Chancellor’s own party.
Even Israel has gone from “Exodus” to a battle between outraged voters and their hyper-conservative government. The prime minister’s coalition is working to end the Israeli Supreme court’s authority to overturn “unreasonable” legislation – the only existing check on dictatorial tendencies.
Assessing the staying power of the US Constitutional system is not easy. However, a Harvard history professor, Dr. Serhi Plokhy, suggested a good starting point. “History, he said, makes the present legible”. The following traces through millennia, instances when democratic forms of government were replaced or preceded by more autocratic systems.
Ancient Rome and Greece to 1787 Philadelphia
Roman Republic (509-27BC) emerged after a group of aristocrats successfully revolted against the last Etruscan King. Inspired by the earlier Greek democracies, they introduced one of the earliest and longest-lived representative democracies. It collapsed centuries later because of serious economic problems, wide-spread public corruption and a civil war started and won by a popular general, Julius Caesar. He was Rome’s dictator for 2 years until his assassination on March 15, 44BC.
Athens and Plato
Plato (427-347BC) believed democracy was inherently weak, vulnerable to dictators and unable to produce leaders with the intelligence, ability and skills to govern effectively. During his life time in Athens, he experienced oligarchies,,direct democracy and tyrannies, but died before Macedonia conquered Athens (338BC).
Roman Empire (27BC – 476AD) Caesar’s great nephew, Augustus, became Rome’s first emperor. Many Centuries later, after a long internal decline, the western Empire ended in 476AD, when the last Roman Emperor, Romulus,was defeated by Germanic barbarian forces. The Empire continued in the East (Byzantium) for 1100 more years, until several debilitating internal civil wars resulted in the 1442AD fall of Constantinople, to an Ottoman army. The 1400 plus year reigns of these two closely related Empires, represents the longest tenure to date of a single form of government.
Italian City States (12th – 14th Century). They styled themselves as “republics” and were able to innovate because the Alps protected them, from invasions by the Germanic Holy Roman Emperors. Left to themselves, they developed limited representative governments, early capitalism, banking and accounting. However, by the 14th Century all, except Venice, had become hereditary duchies and principalities.
Great Britain. The long march to the US Constitution and its representative democracy, began in 13th Century England. The barons had grown tired of King John’s arbitrary rule and his poaching on their prerogatives. In 1215, they forced him to sign the Magna Carta, subjecting him to the same traditional common law and the document’s rights, that all subjects followed. It is considered the cornerstone of our individual liberties today. The barons also created an oversight Committee of 26 (barons) to ensure the king didn’t stray,:an acknowledged ancestor of the UK Parliament.
Fifty years later, in 1265, a powerful British noble, Simon de Montfort convened what is considered the first “representative” parliament, because he invited commoner town/city officials to join the barons and knights to discuss governance issues. The lower house of the British Parliament is called the Commons.
Much later, in the 17th Century, two British civil wars challenged the “excessive” powers of the monarchy versus the parliament’s. King Charles I was executed, leading to 5 years of Oliver Cromwell’s puritanism and military dictatorship. Cromwell died in 1658, and Charles II was restored to his father’s throne in 1660. Puritanism faded fast.
The Glorious Revolution (1688-89) saw the bloodless deposition of the Roman Catholic King, James II & his daughter’s and her husband William’s peaceful accession as co-monarchs. Both were Protestants.
Almost coincident, in 1689 two British intellectuals, Isaac Newton and John Locke wrote 2 manuscripts. Together, they formed the basis of the The Enlightenment, a hugely liberalizing political philosophy. They described it as an attempt to synthesize the relationship between God, Man and Human Nature. Many of America’s founders were deeply influenced by it. And Jefferson, translated it for the Declaration of Independence as: “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “
The Revolution, the Constitution and the Birth of the United States of America
Many of the 55 Americans attending the May 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, had an Enlightenment vision in mind for their new country. Also, they and other Revolutionary leaders had grown up in the 13 colonies, were very familiar with Britain’s political history and had experienced its colonial governance structure: an executive and a 2 house legislature (appointed council & elected assembly).
. The final draft of the Constitution was completed in September 1787. But, ratification was delayed to allow stronger protections for citizens against a possibly overbearing Federal Government, to be added. The first ten amendments to the Constitution (Bill of Rights) were inserted and the revised draft was sent to the state legislatures. It should be noted, that slavery economics had been ignored, in order to get Southern ratification.
By March 9, 1789 a majority of states had approved it and some 9 months later, US and UK reps. signed the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolution and recognizing the independence of the USA.
Has the Past made our Political Present Legible?
Yes, it helps, The earlier mini-review of Western political evolution, does offer two general conclusions: (1) no single form of government lasts forever and (2) the thousands of major changes in Western forms of government since 427BC (Plato’s birth) have included few that were gradual, calm or even peaceful.
Moreover, today’s political environment is also being shaped by three singular 21st Century realities: (1) the existence of social media/special apps; (2) the willingness of some 2000 Americans to violently overthrow the legitimate outcome of the 2020 presidential election (failed) and (3) the party’s presumed 2024 presidential candidate is the one whose loss of reelection in 2020, led to the failed 2021, assault on the US Capitol.
Since late 2021, he has been indicted by 4 courts on 91 criminal charges. However, his popularity among millions of party members has not diminished. If convicted or again loses, what then? . For the preceding 156 years (1865-2021), the US had avoided any comparable American on American brutality, for political ends.
The co-opted party gained a small House majority in January 2023. The radicals, under the leadership of their speaker, who traded his authority for the job, has been unable to control their dysfunction and chaos. In May they were responsible for a very near US default on its debt and in September, for a likely closure of the Federal Government on 10/01/23. The party itself continues to undermine US agencies and departments.
Benjamin Franklin understood the fragility of this form of government he had just helped create. As he left the Pennsylvania State House in September 1787, he answered a passerby’s query: “We have a Republic, he said, if you can keep it.” And that’s the question we face today: Can we keep it?
That’s a known unknown (thanks to former SecDef Rumsfeld).
“There are three kinds of people: those who see; those who see when they are shown; and those who do not see.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.