Review: Waller R. Newell, Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Victory was only two years old. Britain’s public finances were in shambles due to the huge cost of fighting two devastating global conflicts within the brief span of thirty years. Despite having led his country during its most trying hour, Winston Churchill was now in opposition, repudiated by the very people he had so recently helped to save from Nazi tyranny. Instead they chose Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, a modest man “with much to be modest about,” as Churchill drolly put it. Having vanquished the tyrannies of Hitler and Mussolini, the free world now faced the growing threat posed by another tyrant, Joseph Stalin, a former ally whose occupying troops now stood in the heart of Europe and showed no signs of leaving. Democracy’s future looked precarious at best. Was it worth fighting for? Churchill thought it was, and on Remembrance Day in 1947, he stood up in the House of Commons and uttered this memorable if muted defence of a threatened political order:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Whatever the flaws of democracy—and they are considerable—the other options on offer, usually grouped under the larger rubric of tyranny, are not especially attractive. Nevertheless, it is precisely democracy’s flaws that repeatedly tempt people to follow a tyrant—a leader who promises to make things right again and to cut through the obstacles standing in the way of a better world, including legitimate legal and constitutional obstacles.
Democracy is not the normal state of affairs for organizing polities. Tyranny is, and has been, a persistent fact of life virtually everywhere, motivated not so much by a collective failure to join the progressive march of historical inevitability as by the righteous anger of ambitious young men seeking glory—what Plato famously called the spirited element in the human soul. As long as there are such men—and, no, tyranny is not (for the most part) a gender-inclusive phenomenon—tyrannical rule, and the terror inevitably accompanying it, will be a persistent possibility. And no quantity of programs to bring sanitation, health care, shelter, and food to the economically disadvantaged will eliminate it. This is the analysis that Walter R. Newell employs in his witty, fast-paced, and breezy account of an ancient story, Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror.
A Taxonomy of Tyranny
Yet dividing the world’s states between democracies and tyrannies is too facile. Much as democracies differ with respect to their arrangement of political institutions, so tyrannies differ as to their ultimate aims, which vary from time to time and from place to place. Newell groups them into three broad categories. First, there is the conventional tyrant described by Plato and others who is simply out to aggrandize himself, possibly at the expense of his subjects. The Greeks and Romans alike well understood that a pure, unmitigated monarchy was likely to degenerate into a tyranny, especially if the monarch himself was afflicted with a tyrannical personality, that is, one in which the fulfillment of his own protean desires plays the central role in his governance. This may be the most ubiquitous form of tyranny in history, exemplified by the character of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. For Newell, Achilles best represents the traditional tyrant, motivated by nothing more exalted than anger and the desire for vengeance in the face of a perceived great injustice.
Given the dangers historically associated with tyranny, why do so many people seem to prefer it over democracy?
Then there are the reforming tyrants, larger-than-life rulers who either seize power or inherit it and proceed to change their countries through tyrannical methods. King Henry VIII came to the throne of England after his father’s death in 1509, and once in charge he proceeded to remake England into a great power, a task his Tudor successors, especially his daughter Elizabeth I, picked up. Similarly, Louis XIV ruthlessly centralized political authority in his own person, reducing the nobility to fixtures of his own royal court at Versailles, expanding France’s territory at the expense of her neighbours, and beginning the reconstruction of Paris that would accelerate dramatically under Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann two centuries later. Peter the Great and the first Napoleon conform to the mould of the reforming tyrant, borrowing a page from Machiavelli’s writings, committing acts that most people would take to be immoral while enhancing their country’s strength and international prestige, as well as benefiting the ordinary subjects under their rule. Such rulers genuinely believe they have their people’s best interests at heart, and they may indeed benefit their countries over the long term. Yet their ruthless methods indelibly mark them as tyrants. Newell’s third and final category is the millenarian tyrant, possessed of a vision of final and complete justice whose achievement justifies the deaths of millions—sacrifices to the larger cause of bringing into being a pure collective of human beings shorn of the ordinary aspirations that motivate people in their daily lives. If huge numbers of people fail to conform to the regime’s expectations of them, the millenarian tyrant is more than willing to dispose of them. Or as Greta Garbo’s Soviet functionary Ninotchka put it in the eponymous 1939 film: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” The millenarian tyrant is a recent development in the history of political rule, dependent on technical means unavailable to his more remote predecessors. Examples are not difficult to find, beginning with the French Jacobins of the 1790s, Russia’s Bolsheviks after 1917, and Germany’s National Socialists in the 1930s and ’40s. These regimes, of course, belong to the past, but millenarian tyranny continues today in the form of the radical Islamism pursued by post-1979 Iran, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. In all these cases, spirited young men looking for adventure and a cause worth fighting for have been attracted to the cleansing violence of an apocalyptic vision for a purified humanity. For them food, shelter, and the comforts of daily life have no allure, as they are the marks of a decadent society waiting to be replaced by something they themselves are willing to die—and kill—to bring about.
Newell is not the first to recognize that tyrannies do not come one size fits all and that some are considerably worse than others. Writing in the years following the end of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt wrote of totalitarianism as a distinctive form of misrule, not to be confused with the garden variety tyrannies of earlier ages. Totalitarian rulers are convinced that they and they alone possess the key to understanding history, which becomes a law to itself taking precedence over settled legal rights and responsibilities. If history does not take the exact trajectory they think it should, they are more than willing to give it a little push—or, rather, a huge push that may require the use of systematic terror to keep people off guard, thereby securing their complete subordination to the regime’s agenda. Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (the latter of whom served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor in the 1970s) further analyzed the phenomenon in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). Less sweeping than Arendt’s analysis, they focused on some of the material components underpinning the regime, such as technology and efforts to monopolize communications, but always within the broader atmosphere of terror, whose effects they magnified. Though this is tyranny at its worst, other less obviously ambitious regimes have nevertheless managed to treat flesh-and-blood human beings with contempt in their efforts to achieve glory.
Why have so many Americans, as citizens of a country with one of the oldest constitutional traditions in the world, opted to put in the White House a man whose commitment to the rule of law seems weak at best?
Given the dangers historically associated with tyranny, why do so many people seem to prefer it over democracy? Why have Russians so overwhelmingly supported Vladimir Putin’s strong-arm rule over the more superficially democratic Russia of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s? Why did Egyptians’ repudiation of Hosni Mubarak’s decades-old authoritarian regime result in the scarcely less autocratic rule of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Most striking of all, why have so many Americans, as citizens of a country with one of the oldest constitutional traditions in the world, opted to put in the White House a man whose commitment to the rule of law seems weak at best?
Let’s return to Churchill’s statement to recognize the ambivalence many people have toward democracy.
To begin with, some of us may have noticed that democracies seem structurally incapable of balancing their budgets. John Maynard Keynes’s postwar economic orthodoxy prescribed that governments spend during the low points of the business cycle and accumulate surpluses during the boom times. However, the fact that governments must go to the people every few years, coupled with the reality that governments are not easily (re-)elected on promises to cut spending, means that budgets tend to stay in the red year after year, with an increasing portion of government expenditures going to service the continually swelling public debt. A federal division of powers may only exacerbate the chronic fiscal difficulties of multiple governments with overlapping tax bases. If shaky finances bring political instability in their wake, ordinary people may be tempted to opt for a leader who will cut through all the political—and legal—niceties with a promise to fix things for good. Of course, tyrannies are fully capable of skirting the edges of fiscal insolvency as well, but it is more difficult to affix blame when the perpetrators are dispersed throughout a more participatory, and often untidy, political system. Thus the system itself may fall into disrepute.
Furthermore, democracy, with its alluring vision of equality, may encourage people to believe that every citizen is equally capable of governing and that no special skills are needed for this purpose. One-time presidential aspirant Alfred E. Smith once said that “the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” Smith was not the originator of this notion; he simply summarized what many were thinking in the early years of the last century, as reformers sought to democratize as many political institutions as possible. The Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution changed the method of putting senators into office, from appointment by state legislatures, to popular election. Primary elections within each of the parties were also established, and these were multiplied and strengthened by the reforms of the early 1970s. The presidency itself was now in effect filled by popular election, despite the intentions of the eighteenth-century founders that the Electoral College exercise independent judgment and put the best person in office. Many of the founders had actually feared democracy and established in their new Constitution a mechanism that, if F. H. Buckley‘s reading is correct, should have had the House of Representatives choosing the president more often than not. Yet by the time Andrew Jackson was, for all intents and purposes, elected to the office in 1828, the presidency had become what many of the founders thought was the greatest threat to liberty—greater, even, than that of a hereditary monarchy.
Finally, democracy can paradoxically be both messy and unexciting, either of which is conducive to a popular acceptance of tyrannical alternatives. The apparent messiness of democracy can bring it into disrepute, especially if the times seem to call for a stronger and more resolute response to multiple and fast-developing troubles. During the 1920s ordinary Germans grew to dislike the fractious institutions of the new Weimar Republic, which did little to alleviate the severe economic difficulties they experienced after the end of the Great War. Similarly, the French Fourth Republic, whose National Assembly was divided among numerous political parties, proved incapable of addressing the back-to-back crises of defeat in Indochina, the abortive European Defence Community, and the Algerian War. While Charles de Gaulle was not exactly a tyrant, the strong presidency he established for the Fifth Republic satisfied the historic French penchant for decisive executive leadership, even if it came at the expense of the people’s elected representatives in parliament.
When democratic institutions are working reasonably well, excitement over ordinary politics wanes in the hearts of the most adventurous.
According to the late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick, “Politics is, to so many social scientists, a kind of disease.” If social scientists see politics as a problem to solve, presumably through technical means connected with their own disciplines, then we should not be surprised when ordinary voters believe the promises of a would-be Bonaparte to cure this “disease” by a series of executive decrees. But Crick goes further than this in viewing democracy itself as a threat to ordinary politics, because its doctrine of a single popular will threatens “the essential perception that all known advanced societies are inherently pluralistic and diverse, which is the seed and the root of politics.” As such, democracy has the potential to strengthen “unfree regimes” and has historically contributed to the rise of totalitarianism. If Crick is correct in his assessment, it is further reason to abandon the facile dichotomy between democracy and tyranny. Moreover, it brings us closer to the mainstream of Western political philosophy, much of which stubbornly retained a negative appraisal of any “pure” form of government, including democracy, preferring instead a “mixed constitution” in which monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are merely component features rather than descriptions of the whole. For Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Althusius, and many more, democracy is inextricably linked to the dangers of tyranny. If the people be taken as an undifferentiated collective rather than as citizens exercising multiple overlapping authoritative offices, it becomes easier for a would-be saviour to gain their confidence and, with their support, to move his country in a tyrannical direction. Only a constitution boasting countervailing institutions to check democratic tyranny is likely to withstand such executive overreach.
When, on the other hand, democratic institutions are working reasonably well, excitement over ordinary politics wanes in the hearts of the most adventurous. This is when promises of glory work their magic within young, mostly male citizens hungering to devote their lives to the cause of effecting final justice in the world. The mundane duties of issuing licence plate stickers, improving physical infrastructure, and tidying up public parks pale before the eschatological promises of the classless society, the master race, or global jihad. Young men will not risk their necks for members’ statements in the Commons or an adjustment to federal income tax rates; they will put their lives on the line for a higher cause they think worthy of their efforts. Why settle for the chairmanship of a local riding association when you might become a twenty-first-century Achilles?
Where then does this leave us? Tyranny is a flawed form of government, but so is democracy, whose evident and perceived defects have so often led to popular acceptance of tyrannical rule. Newell thinks he has the answer: compel the angry and vengeful young men thirsting for adventure to sit down and pore over . . . the Great Books! “The homeopathic cure for tyranny lies in the canon of the Great Books with their breadth, depth, and psychological finesse about the best and worst in human nature.” Make the kiddies read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Politics. There is nothing like liberal education to dampen youthful restlessness, right? One has visions of a bespectacled schoolmarm desperately trying to round up the rowdiest of the boys and get them to sit down with Plutarch’s Lives dangling alluringly before them—a literary Ritalin capable of calming the most hyperactive spirit.
Why settle for the chairmanship of a local riding association when you might become a twenty-first-century Achilles?
As an educator myself and as one who in his youth enjoyed the benefits of a liberal arts education, I would never wish to play down its importance. Too many people jump through the required hoops of higher learning, content to receive training in a particular field without being made aware of the larger cultural and historical context that gives that field meaning. Neither have they been introduced to the larger questions that have puzzled generations of thinkers down through the centuries—questions about the meaning of just political order and the philosophical foundations of authority and law. In this respect, young people are more likely to get a superior education at a small liberal arts undergraduate university than at a large research-oriented institution where funding chases measurable results and students are treated very nearly as unfinished products of an academic assembly line. By graduating students who have been educated in the classic works of philosophy and literature, the liberal arts university definitely contributes to influencing the larger political culture that supports a country’s governing institutions. If this is what Newell has in mind, then I can agree with him wholeheartedly.
As a political scientist, however, I would prefer to focus, as did many of the ancient writers themselves, on something more structural, namely, forms of government. Could it be that a long series of political philosophers were correct in judging that the best and most durable form of government would be the mixed constitution, in which monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements would be carefully balanced within a single system? Might the ancients have seen correctly that monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy alike can degenerate into tyranny if left unchecked by the others? Philosopher Yves René Simon (1903–1961) observed that “a nondemocratic principle may serve democracy by holding in check forces fatal to it.” Furthermore, “Any regime, in order to work well or merely to survive, needs or may need the operation of principles distinct from, and opposed to, its own idea.”
Democracy works best when tempered by non-democratic institutions and when harnessed to the wisdom associated with experienced statesmanship.
Certainly the American founders, who were schooled in the ancient writings, did not believe they were creating a democracy. Nor did Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, as witnessed in Sir George-Étienne Cartier’s expressed belief that “purely democratic institutions would not be conducive to the peace and prosperity of nations” and in their replicating monarchical and aristocratic elements of England’s centuries-old constitution on this side of the pond. Recent events south of the border might well be taken to confirm the sagacity of these two founding generations: democracy works best when tempered by non-democratic institutions and when harnessed to the wisdom associated with experienced statesmanship. A demand for the mixed constitution may never be emblazoned on a placard at a popular demonstration. It may not capture the imaginations of the more ambitious of our youth, and it certainly will not guarantee perfect justice once and for all. But it does have the potential to forestall the worst features of tyranny, whatever form it might take, and that is something with which we may have to be satisfied for the present.