I hate to say it—and I mean this line of thinking offends me as a “little-D democrat”—but the most stable form of government in human history is hereditary monarchy. Hands down, it wins the race as the longest-running, most often chosen, quickest-to-revert-to form of political organization. It would seem to be the natural way for human beings to govern themselves, the hierarchical imperative.
I do not say it is the best form of government. Or that it’s the fairest, most efficient, or most rational form. Just that it is the most stable—although it’s not exactly that in the short term, either. It’s the form that every society keeps coming back to.
Ancient Rome from its founding had seven kings,1 and they were deposed in favor of a democratically based republican form of government that lasted almost 400 years. The Republic was a system of meritocratic personal advancement through a course of political, military, and religious offices, culminating in election to a shared executive function, the consulship, that a man might hold only once in ten years. The Romans were deeply allergic to the idea of kingship, so much so that when they had to resort to a single leader holding extraordinary powers during a crisis, they instead used the term dictator. (This was simply Latin for “speaker.”) And yet, after a series of politically powerful men, having run the “course of honors” and already served their terms as consul, fought for ultimate power using their own armies in the Civil Wars of the first century B.C., they adopted a virtual king in the person of the Caesarian imperator, or “field marshal.” (From this we get our term “emperor,” now generally intended to mean a supreme ruler above any number of petty kings and chiefs—of which the Roman Empire had many.)
The Athenian Greeks, the progenitors of our earliest ideas about democracy, veered between elected officials and power-holding “tyrants” for most of what we think of as their ancient Golden Age in the sixth to the fourth centuries BC. But before they had democracy, they had the basileus, or “king.” And the Spartans never had much of a democracy, retaining a king who ruled alongside a council of “ephors,” or magistrates. After Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, and then the whole country was subsumed into Macedonia under Philip II and his son Alexander, rule by hereditary kingship remained with the Greeks and what remained of the Alexandrian empire until its eventual takeover by Rome.
At the beginning of the 20th century, most of Europe was nominally ruled by local kings (of the Spanish, Greeks, Danes, Swedes, and English, to name a few), or a Kaiser in Germany, or Tsar in Russia.2 Being an enlightened age, most of these kings’ powers were either overseen by or shared with some form of parliament, or diet in imperial Germany and Japan, or duma in imperial Russia. Some kings, like those in England and Sweden, were more social figureheads than persons of power. Some, like those in Germany and Russia, ruled as virtual autocrats—or tried to. Two world wars swept away the actual power of even the most autocratic sovereigns, but in the case of Russia and Germany the forces that took over quickly devolved into a new form of ruler—the Secretary General of the Communist Party in Russia and the Reich chancellor, or simply Der Führer, in Germany, who were kings in all but name. And if either Stalin or Hitler had left children capable in time of succeeding him, there’s little doubt those titles would have become hereditary.
Of course, most of the rest of the world in antiquity and up to modern times has been ruled by kings under one name or another: Pharaoh in Egypt, Sultan among the Turks, Great King in Persia, Emperor in China, and chiefs among the many native tribes of North America or full kings among the urbanized native cultures of Central and South America. When Europeans conquered and attempted to colonize and “civilize” these lands, they eventually tried to bring in some form of parliamentary democracy or Western bureaucracy. But it seldom took hold, except perhaps in India. And China in the 20th century quickly went from the last imperial dynasty to a republic, and then to government by the Communist Party under Mao Zedong, who was the new “Red Emperor” in all but name.
Falling into line under the leadership of one man—or more rarely a woman—and obeying his or her orders seems to be in our human genes, going back to the hierarchical organization of the monkey troupe. In moments of crisis—and there is always a crisis, sometime, somewhere—we rely on the proven or probable skills and knowledge of a military, political, or spiritual leader, or whatever the tribe needs. This is rule of the fittest by common consensus. But once that person has tasted power, it’s difficult not to succumb to the temptation of continuing the crisis to stay in power. And this tendency is exacerbated by the leader’s naturally surrounding himself—and sometimes herself—with a cadre of lieutenants, counselors, or acolytes, to whom he or she owes favors and delegates powers in their own right, and from whom he or she exacts loyalty and support in the face of all challengers.
Sometimes, as in the Native American cultures, a tribe might rally around a war leader in times of military struggle and then a political or diplomatic leader or elder in times of peace and negotiation. The tribe’s leadership would be fluid and flexible. But those arrangements would occur in small groups, an extended clan or village, where almost everyone knew every member of the tribe. In larger groups, or groups that have grown larger by conquest, the person of the king becomes isolated, distant, and cloaked in ceremony and privilege. Then the functions of military, political, and sometimes even spiritual leader become blended in a single person. And because people have an innate respect for genes and heredity, it’s easy for a king to promote his eldest or most capable son as heir to the throne. Even if the king dies while the heir is still a child, that cadre of lieutenants and counselors will close ranks around the throne and defend the child’s rights, or promote a regent to serve in power until the child reaches maturity.
This is all very old stuff, going back to patterns laid down in human prehistory. And it works for most people, because democracy as practiced in its ideal form is hard. People have to take time out of their daily lives to take note of and learn about the major issues confronting the tribe or the nation. They have to exercise the vote and make what they believe or hope to be an intelligent choice. Then they have to take responsibility when their candidate wins the election but ultimately fails in action and creates more crisis. They have to get and stay involved. They have to care. In a busy life with not much free time, people get tired of grappling with national priorities and making decisions—especially when most of the time they have to compromise in their views or hold their tongues when the opposite party wins an election and exercises its own version of power.
A king surrounded by appointed counselors and people of rank, who have superior knowledge and together can make decisions for the good of the country, becomes an acceptable form of government. Their decisions might not be the best, or what the average citizen would choose for him- or herself, but they are usually good enough. The system is stable enough to be allowed to continue. And when the country reaches a crisis, when the decisions are bad, then the king’s royal but non-ruling relatives and chief counselors stage a coup, hold an internal war within the capital, and create a new king whom everyone can trust to sort out the mess and get the country back on a good enough footing. The situation is stable—not permanently so, because there are always the occasional coups and interregnums—but stable enough. It soon becomes time-honored tradition.
The current political situation in America calls into question our long-standing traditions under a democratically elected republican form of government. Our constitutional government is now under attack in favor of rule by technical experts appointed to administrative bureaucracies under the Executive Branch. The majority of the rules we now live by are written by cabinet-level functionaries, rather than by elected legislators. The legislators, instead of framing laws we can all read and understand, instead write loose and sometimes hypothetical “wish lists” or desired “end states,” granting powers to those bureaucracies to then write the actual, detailed rules. When the laws that people are supposed to live by are no longer simple, obvious, and readily available, the republic is in danger.
And then the legislators themselves are no longer citizen candidates serving one or two terms as their civic duty. Instead, they have become lifelong officeholders insulated by their extensive staffs and their stronger connections with one party or the other. Their constituencies are defined by incomprehensible district lines engineered to yield a predictable party superiority, called “gerrymandering.” And when that fails, they achieve superiority by the threat or actual practice of voter suppression and ballot fraud. When the average citizen’s vote is no longer equally counted or is rendered meaningless, democracy is in danger.
The Democratic Party devised and used a system of “super delegates” to quash the nomination of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 convention and put in place as their chosen candidate Hillary Clinton. That is a failure of democracy, at least on the party level. In a backlash to the unpopular Clinton—and in part to her unfortunate “deplorables” comment—we saw the populist election of outsider and demagogue Donald Trump in 2016, which brought in a charismatic figure who volubly opposes “the Swamp” of bureaucratic politics. However these anti-democratic forces play out, through repeated soft coup attempts or eventual open warfare, it’s going to be bad for a nation of laws, civility, and the traditional practice of peacefully relinquishing power after losing an election. And when the democratic structure supporting a republic collapses, whether through political crisis or civil war, the likely result is the surviving party establishing some kind of leader figure who is king in all but name.
After the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what the group had created. His reply was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” These days, we may be very close to losing it.
1. Or that’s the tradition. It turns out that those legendary seven covered a span of about 300 years, from the city’s founding on seven hills in a bend of the Tiber around 700 BC. to the expulsion of the last king and creation of the republic about 400 BC. That’s a remarkable span, and the dating of the various kings is inexact, but each of them would have had to rule on average more than forty years apiece, in a primitive village founded around the margins of a great swamp. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but unlikely.
2. It’s a commonplace that “Kaiser” and “Tsar” are simply local linguistic forms of the original “Caesar,” showing how deeply the idea of emperorship and the name of Rome’s first incumbent marked European thinking.