Civics: The New Face of Tyranny

Paul Rahe:

When the First World War ended, there was a brief period when it seemed as if the world really had become safe for democracy—when it seemed as if history had come to an end and liberal democracy had achieved a lasting hegemony. The same thing happened again just over 70 years later when the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself, the Soviet Union fell apart, and the Cold War came to an end.

On neither occasion, however, were the heady hopes of the victors borne out. In both cases tyranny gradually re-emerged, and disappointment dogged those who had imagined that the dream articulated by Immanuel Kant in his “Essay on Perpetual Peace” would be fulfilled.

None of this should come as a surprise. Tyranny in one form or another has been the norm throughout human history, and it is not apt to disappear. As Montesquieu observed 270 years ago in his Spirit of the Laws, its avoidance requires artifice. “To form a moderate government,” he tells us, “it is necessary to combine powers, to regulate them, to temper them, to make them act, to give, so to speak, a ballast to one in order to put it in a condition to resist another; this is a masterpiece of legislation, which chance rarely produces & prudence is rarely allowed to produce.” Though it constitutes an assault on human nature, he adds, despotism is, in a sense, natural. It “jumps up, so speak, before our eyes; it is uniform throughout: as the passions alone are necessary for its establishment, the whole world is good enough for that.”

If we are to understand our present predicament, we will have to take into account just how fragile liberal democratic regimes are and the preconditions for their survival. In this regard, as Montesquieu insisted, size matters. As he noticed, the first republics known to man relied on civic virtue; and, to sustain themselves, they had to be small enough for shame to be a formidable force. In antiquity, as he also pointed out, all of the polities situated on an extended territory were despotisms—where fear was brought in as a substitute for shame as a source of political and social discipline.