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How democracies commit suicide

The first page of Google News results for ‘Venice’ tells a tragic tale. One headline says the city is ‘on its knees’ after the worst flooding in decades. Another tells of protests against mass tourism, a third of an ageing population. None are positive.

These are the convulsions of a dying city. 30 million people visit every year but only about 50,000 people actually live there. That’s only half the capacity of the MCG. Now that the city is charging entrance fees it has essentially completed its demise into the Disneyland version of itself. The floods are just the nails in the coffin.


Underneath the tragic tale of Venice is another story. The city was home to the longest-lived form of government in human history. The Republic of Venice lasted 1100 years, from 696 to 1796. It will be surpassed only by Iceland’s Althing (parliament) in 2030.

But the Republic of Venice, like the city itself, couldn’t last forever. It eventually fell to Napoleon.

No form of government can last forever. It may feel like the country you live in is eternal, but the inhabitants of Venice once thought the same. Like Venice, the system you live under will eventually either die a violent death or change shape into something you’d no longer recognise.

As Benjamin Franklin once said to a citizen: “America will be a republic, if you can keep it.”

No modern democratic system of government dates back more than a few hundred years. The oldest written democratic constitution in the world is the US Constitution, dating to 1788. Australia’s constitution is the tenth oldest and it’s only been around for 118 years, just 1.5 times the average lifespan of its citizens.

Some countries, like Britain, can trace their democracies back to the Middle Ages, but all have changed beyond recognition bar some strange traditions here and there.

So why do democracies die?

One study looked into the collapse of 30 democracies and found five variables that are most closely correlated with imminent demise: major social cleavages such as economic inequality; a malfunctioning economy; whether a country has a democratic background (Switzerland) or not (Turkey); the involvement of foreign powers in domestic politics; and frequent changes of government.

The authors argued that any democracy meeting four of those criteria is ‘doomed to collapse’ in 96.8% of all cases. The US today arguably has three: high economic inequality, the involvement of foreign powers in domestic politics, and frequent shifts in the Congressional balance of power.

That leaves American democracy dependent on the health of the economy, which isn’t exactly a cause for optimism.

As for how democracies die, most don’t go violently like the Republic of Venice. It’s usually more of a steady weakening, almost a natural ageing process that eventually succumbs to autocracy.

One of the most cited examples is the Roman Republic, which emerged from monarchy and lasted for 500 years before it eventually gave way to the Roman Empire.

After Rome took control of the Mediterranean, wealth and power became concentrated in the hands of a top ‘one percent’. Political power had a high entry fee and consequently became polarised between the ‘elites’ and the ‘masses’.

This polarisation grew over time and gave rise to populist celebrity leaders like Marius and Sulla, who broke established norms and precedents in pursuit of their own interests. The Senate was either too polarised to make decisions or was irrelevant altogether, creating the right conditions for a man like Julius Caesar to finally end the Republic. His nephew Augustus became the first emperor.

That’s a very simple version of events, but the crux of the story is that the slow erosion of norms and traditions, brought about by growing political polarisation and populist leaders, was a terminal cancer.

Plato told a similar tale: death nears when a democracy’s citizens lose sight of their shared interests. Politicians appeal to people’s emotions and play loose with facts. Popular opinion becomes more important than truth, and eventually someone comes along who can use emotions to bend the will of the majority.

The population then votes for a demagogue: a leader who changes their democracy into the Disneyland version of itself, a government with an entrance fee, an illusion that the original inhabitants no longer recognise until one day autocracy finally floods in. “America will be a republic, if you can want it.”

That's how democracies commit suicide. It’s a Venetian tragedy.

PS: Guns don't stop would-be tyrants. (SurveyMonkey via NYT)

#geopolitics #democracy #government #future

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