Commentary

Authoritarianism v. democratic self-governance: The battle of the ages

April 21, 2022 3:20 am

ROME – The Roman Forum in 2022. Photo by David DeWitt, Ohio Capital Journal.

ROME — When I’m not helping chronicle the charade of governance that is Ohio policy and politics, I’m most often studying the history of human civilization, with an emphasis on America and antiquity.

Taking a short hiatus from the circus maximus of the Ohio Statehouse, standing amidst the ruins of the Roman Forum, I pondered the significance of the Enlightenment period that produced the American Republic, inspired in political philosophy as it was by the ancient Greco-Roman governments.

The fundamental ideal at the heart of all these is democratic self-governance, though neither America nor the city-states of Greece nor the Roman Republic ever actualized this ideal for all people living under banners of democracy. Slavery, patriarchy, and class systems inextricably shaped each, in every case giving the lie to the thought that liberty and equality has ever reigned for all, save, perhaps, in a handful of tribal cultures.

Power is the oldest game in the history of human civilization, no matter the system of governance: the ancient monarchies of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Judah and Israel, the democratic city-states of Greece, the Roman Republic, the feudal systems and monarchies of the middle ages, the fascist and communist states of the 20th Century, the capitalist states of the American Republic and western democracies.

The actual will and needs of the people have forever been locked in battle with the authoritarian ambitions of ruling classes.

The fight has gone through periods of détente and low simmer, but always rises to high heat again from the base machinations of unscrupulous power-seekers and the inevitable backlash of victimized and subjugated peoples.

In America and Ohio today, we are obligated by patriotism to recognize this battle pitched before us once again.

On the global level, we see it in Russia’s ghoulish military assault on the sovereign democratic republic of Ukraine. On the national level, we see the Trumpist political movement wantonly attacking every norm and institution built to protect democratic self-governance, in an open play to install theocratic, patriarchal, white nationalist, heteronormative authoritarian control over American politics and society.

In Ohio, we see our so-called public servants shamelessly indulging large-scale corruption; passing extremist minoritarian laws unreflective of the people; and recklessly creating election and constitutional crises to maintain their undue, ill-gotten grip on supermajority political power.

A photo of the Ohio Statehouse from Wikimedia Commons.

These depravities in Ohio are the consequences of gerrymandering and an unaccountable system of campaign finance that allows politicians to take millions in donations while giving away billions in public money through tax breaks, contracts and sweetheart lawmaking.

Our government thus persists in the hands of an arrogant few exercising unchecked power. Having suffered no consequences thus far, they expect to pay no price now or any time soon for abandoning their duty to the people in favor of personal ambition and self-enrichment.

This is the politics of egomaniacal nihilism that’s now entrenched in the Trumpist Republican Party ethos, but has been characteristic of feckless governance since time immemorial.

Playing on resentments toward “coastal elites,” the “mainstream media,” higher education, and all “experts,” the right-wing populist pitch of Trumpianism has always been a snow job.

The single largest achievement of the Trump presidency was a gigantic allocation of wealth upward to the richest individuals and corporations in America at the expense of the common people.

Fear elites for talking about gender pronouns and hate your fellow citizens, they instruct their acolytes, driving every cultural wedge in sight (as we funnel massive amounts of money and resources to us, the ruling class, on your dime).

While the systemic issues of campaign finance and gerrymandering have paved the roads to extremist laws and ruinous political programs aimed toward the dismantling of democratic institutions, these roads are traveled down by a culture that has been fragmented and stripped of its commonality and sense of shared destiny.

Get yours and screw everybody else, modern American culture tell us over and over in myriad ways. Flaunt your excesses, eschew modesty, disdain honesty and vulnerability, indulge selfishness, live materialistically, forget any care or sense of obligation to your neighbors and community.

The Enlightenment idea of Rousseau’s “social contract” is imprinted in the DNA of western democracy and is the philosophical underpinning of why our societies choose to obligate themselves to each other: for the sake of our shared, mutual benefit under the laws, customs and institutions of responsible, ethical democratic self-government.

We are, humanity has largely found, stronger together, and stronger still when we all have a say in ruling ourselves, and are not merely lorded over by self-serving authoritarians.

Rousseau did not invent the idea of the social contract; it finds its roots in in Greek and Stoic philosophy as well as Roman and Canon Law.

Standing in the Roman Forum, I imagined rising from the ruins the magnificent white marble columns, basilicas, triumphal arches, and temples, accented with gold, painted in bright, shining colors and adorned with bronze statues of glorified leaders.

A depiction of the Roman Forum at its height by Lithodomos VR on the World History Encyclopedia.

After the Roman Republic fell to the authoritarianism of the Roman Empire, and as the empire fell itself, all that marvelous white marble covering every surface was ripped away over time — not all at once, but piece by piece, until only brown brick rubble now remains.

Washington D.C. and indeed the Ohio Statehouse are also currently covered in marble, ornament and decoration.

If you’ll allow it to stand briefly as a metaphor for the democratic ideals of self-government animating the American Republic and western democracy, make no mistake, it is also now under grievous threat from the self-serving thieves of authoritarianism — in danger of being ripped away, piece by piece, until only rubble remains.

We must not allow it.

We are obliged — to ourselves, to each other, to our communities, to our shared philosophical heritage, and to our shared political and historical destiny — to never allow it.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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