Democracy and autocracy are at it again. It’s the same old story, the epic battle between the opposite poles of governing: oppressive order vs. messy freedom, people writ large vs. a collection of individuals.
It’s a tale of two visions of the human species. The ending is foretold by the preamble. Human beings have inalienable rights. We can resolve differences and make collective decisions. Or as human-nature pessimists would say: “Not so much. We need a tough leader to save us from our violent, selfish impulses.”
It’s playing out again in Ukraine, where the contrast with the Russian state couldn’t be more clear. A large country led by an autocrat is trying to overpower a smaller one led by a popularly elected president. The tyrant is doing what tyrants do. They claim to be representing the people if not chosen by them. So Russia’s leaders continue to follow the not-so-grand tradition of imprisoning critics, spewing nonsensical propaganda and brutally laying waste to cities.
There may be some artifact of popular support for Putin’s position of power, possibly from a party congress in a one-party state where the party claims to be synonymous with the people. But all such references to the people are made in the aggregate and in the abstract. “People” is not the plural of persons with rights. It’s the collective over time and into the future.
How do we govern ourselves?
Fortunately, there are alternatives to governance by authority figures. But each has to answer the fundamental challenge: Can we humans govern ourselves? If so, how? That’s been the one fundamental question that’s captured the minds of political philosophers as they’ve grappled with the social contract that defines any nation-state.
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We can send texts to people worldwide, ask our phone questions, plot our location to within a few feet and just about let our cars drive themselves. But we still can’t figure out how to resolve conflict and make public decisions. So the temptation is to turn all of that over to tyrants with the understanding that they will keep us safe to live structured, unquestioning lives.
It would be one thing if it was getting better over the last century. But it’s not. When Mikhail Gorbachev took down that wall, there was a brief stirring of democratic impulse in a society plagued by the draw of the dictator. China eased a little before Tiananmen Square. But these societies cannot tolerate dissent and openness. They have no culture and history of democracy. And they can’t tolerate it among their neighbors.
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German and Japan prove change is possible
Germany and Japan recovered from World War II with democratic systems replacing autocracies. So change is possible. Russia is a real enigma: a society that’s produced brilliant scientists, writers and composers. But they’ve never been able to govern themselves. Hence Stalin, and now Putin, and now their new BFF — or for at least for a while — in China.
There’s no self-governance in Tyrannyworld. There’s no free speech. Some dissent may be tolerated, but that tolerance can be withdrawn in an instant. There’s an explicit contract at work. Tyrants get to hold power if they keep people safe and maintain some semblance of public order. That’s a low bar, but it’s an appealing bar when people are in constant fear of being robbed or killed.
What’s amazing is that the questions about fundamental human political nature are pretty much the same today as they have been for centuries. What’s disturbing is that so many can’t see the tyranny forest for the demagoguery trees.
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This drama is always playing at home. The American Founders were great borrowers and integrators of the wisdom of classic political thinking. The foundation of our national government is based on individual rights with structural protections against the concentration of power in the hands of a tyrant or leaving it to the passions of a mob. It’s been especially messy lately. But we have to make it work.
William Lyons is Director of Policy Partnerships for the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. He also served as Chief Policy Officer for Knoxville Mayors Bill Haslam, Daniel Brown and Madeline Rogero.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy or the University of Tennessee.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: People can govern themselves if only they will