The Cycles of Government and Civic Virtue

Plato wrote about it in Republic; Machiavelli wrote about it in The Prince and Discourses on Livy.

What they saw through the history of governments, and what they predicted in the future, was a cycle. Perhaps an endless one. We talked about it in our latest podcast episode.

It goes a little something like this:

  1. A good or necessary autocrat (King, etc) gathers up a state and rules it; people consent because the autocrat keeps people safe or brings justice/prosperity, etc. The autocrat remembers the anarchy before their rule, and so has civic virtue to do right.
  2. Over time, the autocrats--who necessarily have privileges that others don't--become corrupted. They become selfish and believe that the state exists for them, not the other way around. They lose their civic virtue.
  3. An aristocracy--the powerful nobles or whatnot--rise up against the autocrat and take their power. For a time, they too have great civic virtue. They remembered the corrupt oligarch so they lead the nation fairly. They have civic virtue.
  4. Then the aristocracy becomes more of an oligarchy, over time. The nobles forget that their nobility means a duty and responsibility. They lose civic virtue. The people rise up to replace them.
  5. Then democracy takes over. The people are in charge. Things are great. They have great civic virtue because they remember the corrupt oligarchy and don't want it to repeat. End of story, right? (Or as Fukuyama put it, "End of History.")
  6. Perhaps not. At some point maybe the people lose their civic virtue. They form into camps and see their political life as zero-sum. They become fundamentally selfish, factionalized. They care only for their tribe. They lose their civic virtue, and the democracy devolves into a populist mob rule.
  7. What happens next? At some point people become so afraid of each other and the system becomes so unstable that a new autocrat takes power. The cycle repeats.

It sounds far-fetched and I don't see it much in modern political science as a sortof inevitable trend, but we may have seen it multiple times in history.

Historical Examples

Rome is the obvious one. The people of Rome overthrew their kings and established a Senate. That senate became deaf to the people, and the people gained power in an assembly, with their own democratic power, led by Tribunates. But this system, without a lot of paper constitution behind it, operated on norms--called mos maiorum. There was only so much you were willing to do to "win," and there were rules about what not to do.

The Roman Republic broke down in only a few generations when people abandoned mos maiorum. Mike Duncan outlines it brilliantly in The Storm Before the StormWith the end of mos maiorum, candidates did anything it took to get power and punch through the laws their factions wanted. Street fighting emerged. People died by the hundreds. Eventually, Julius Caesar put an end to it, marching on Rome... to cheering crowds welcoming him to become Dictator for Life. The Roman Republic fell, and the Empire took over. The cycle repeated.

Sometimes it happened much more quickly. In the French Revolution, the Estates General shunted power from the king and voluntarily ended feudalism. They brought a constitution. They killed the king when the king wouldn't play ball, and ended the monarchy. Very, very quickly they factionalized. The revolution continued, with factions and counter-factions killing each other to take power. France was in chaos. Then, with much fanfare, Napoleon Bonaparte took over as Emperor. And people loved it. France, in fact, has gone through this cycle multiple times, and is on its 5th Republic.

Germany is another example: after World War 1, the German empire was abolished. They moved pretty quickly to a mixed aristocratic-democratic system, the Weimar Republic. We know how that went: the Republic turned increasingly polarized, with Nazis and Communists fighting each other in the street for power. The Nazis won and turned chaos into their unthinkably brutal order. (We talked about that on a podcast episode, too).

The United States... has tried very hard to prevent this. The Founding Fathers knew how Rome went. They tried to create the ultimate mixed system: a strong executive in the Presidency, an aristocratic element in the Senate, a democratic element in the House.

But over time, the US got frustrated with the aristocratic element: suffrage became universal. The constitution was changed to make senators directly elected, rather than appointed by state assemblies. Primary elections became necessary for congressional and presidential candidates to advance, rather than be selected by party bosses. All this happened in the Progressive Era.

And now we see our own unraveling, our own factionalization. Perhaps even our own loss of civic virtue. Congress can get nothing done; people look increasingly to the Presidency as their tool of power, and the Presidency grows ever more powerful.

Is the US doomed to follow this cycle? Probably not. But it is the longest-running current democracy on earth, so we have no way of saying, "so and so has lasted much longer and they're fine." Are we at risk of descending into anarchy? Into factionalist street-fighting like we saw in Rome, Paris, and Berlin? Absolutely. 

And we all know how those ended. And one thing I'm confident about: if we reach that point, people will turn to the autocrat to save them.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.