SENTENTIA COTIDIANA IX (22/07/2021)

Insurrection on the Capitol

A Failure of Democracy or A Sobering Sign of its Inner Flaws?


The mob incited by a leader refusing to accept defeat at the polls swarmed to the Capitol. A tussle ensued and lives were lost. They disgruntled leader’s supporters were unsuccessful, but an ugly precedent had been set regarding the potential role violent popular assertion could play in politics. And no, I am not describing the electoral riots in January on the Capitol in Washington.


The similarity between the alarming occurrences of 06/01/2021 and several election-related riots and risings in the Roman Republic is striking and I am certainly not the first to spot this. A friend of mine, Dr Nikola Casule astutely observed the comparison as follows:


"There were some who tried to defend the Republic’s norms and practices of government against those who would use huge personal wealth and power for their own ends (and thus undermine those norms) but their own efforts - in that they required extraordinary measures - themselves contributed to the rot. When your system of government depends on a set of ideals that everyone has to follow, and some refuse to, it’s very hard to fix without just exiling all those people. And even that - extreme as it is - doesn’t really work.


I’ve been thinking about who is who. It’s too different in specific details to be an exact correspondence, but if I had to pick I’d say Trump is Crassus, Biden is Cicero, Ted Cruz or maybe Lindsay Graham are Catiline, and Mitt Romney is Cato."


Dr Casule is quite right, the specific differences prevent us matching up the actors. We both certainly agree that the basic parallel is disturbingly similar. Republican Rome may not have been a democracy in the same way as fifth-century Athens, but the government was shared by a a significant popular element that voted laws, elected the magistrates, and ratified treaties of peace and declarations of war. It is, therefore, certainly comparable in its political make up.


The Capitol riots have been branded a failure of democracy, or as revealing the fragility of democracy. Well, the latter could be said of any system confronted with an angry, discontented mob, for example the French Revolution. But is there something specific to democracy itself that was revealed by these events. I would argue yes. What we saw was democracy's darker potential: its power, namely that the people rule and govern in the collective interest of their own country, is potentially also its biggest threat. Democracy has almost become a buzzword for freedom, and this is highly visible in slogans such as 'save democracy', 'defend your democratic right', 'I was fighting for democracy'. The Capitol riots, and indeed the aggressive riots of the Roman Republic, revealed is that not everyone in that democracy conceives of its freedom and its implementation the same way. What happens when a sizeable minority in a democratic country dig their heels in? A democracy divided. Division or disagreement is of course enshrined in democracy and what it should be: freedom to disagree, vote for your chosen party/candidate, freedom to express one's own opinion, worship, as one chooses, protest if discontented. Yet, this can also, when carried to extremes, result in democracy's essentially threatening itself, and even lead to its downfall.


I think this very much lies in the concept of freedom and how it is managed: where it means protecting the rights and safety of individuals to exercise their freedoms without danger, as long as they do not infringe upon, challenge, or even take another's freedom, that is true democratic freedom. So long as that social glue called 'respect' is preserved, democracy will work. But when the 'freedom to (do whatever they like)' takes over in the hands of a group who will not accept defeat or will not back down in their cause, whether they are the majority or minority, and they take it upon themselves to enforce their will under the name of 'democracy' and 'democratic', we see how easily democracy can be its own downfall.


I leave you with a quotation from Greek historian Xenophon, which shows how this problem of democracy is not a new one. After the battle of Arginousae 408 BCE, in which the Athenians achieved a much needed victory, a controversy blew up in Athens over the failure of the generals to retrieve the dead for burial. They claimed that a storm had blown up (punning verbal echo intended) which made it unsafe to retrieve the bodies and so they prioritised saving what was left of the fleet. Back home in Athens, they were tried before an angry people After speaking briefly in their own defence and with witnesses to support their claims about the storm, some citizens called for them to be bailed. However, the meeting was postponed for their fate to be decided for another day. Corrupt politician Theramenes gathered a group who would pretend to be survivors and speak against the generals. When also at the second meeting a further 'alleged' survivor appeared saying that the generals had deliberately deserted the dead, an outcry ensued from the crowd. Those who tried tourge a more cautious response to this testimony, were shouted down by the majority who cried that:



'it would be a terrible thing if someone were to prevent the people from doing whatever they

wished.'



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