To the editor:
It seems Americans have been reintroduced to a word that is worrisome if not scary. “Mob” and its many extensions (mob rule, mob mentality, mob-like) have been increasingly used to describe some public behavior, from incrimination to partisan motives and officials lamenting the current toxic political climate. We read about it in the newspapers and online and see it on television, agitated citizens confronting government officials and angry groups marching/gathering in streets and outside of government buildings. Not since the 1960s have we witnessed the potential for a breakdown of civic order.
As you would expect, everyone has an explanation whether it is based on emotion or logic. Regardless, the current public malaise clashes with our sense of constitutionalism, the rule of law and other time-honored American principles. Our constitution has been the foundation of not only our government, but civic order in our society. No wonder that many Americans have come to believe that the toxic political environment has further eroded our faith not only in the written document, but the spirit of our constitution as well. Many believe our nation is in for a change or is already on the path to drastic change in our civic order.
Just what would this change be and why? Obviously, no one can predict the fickleness of a democratic polity. Nonetheless, there is one explanation to consider. It seems that our cherished constitution may fit into a lifecycle first described by a Greek slave indentured to a patrician Roman family. Polybius, writing more than 2,000 years ago, attempted to explain the Roman “constitution,” its successes and shortcomings for providing Romans a stable, effective government that lasted centuries. Their “Twelve Tablets” provided the foundation for Roman law codes, legislative and executive. Many of our institutions (United States Senate) were inspired by Roman government structures and the writings of many Roman leading intellectuals (Cicero) influenced future thinkers (John Locke). These influences played an integral role in our own constitutional history. Roman laws and citizenship were the envy of the ancient world, just as our constitution is the envy and model for many nations in our own time.
Polybius was a keen observer of Roman politics. He explained Rome’s dominance as the result of its constitution, just as American greatness and success is attributed to the U.S. Constitution. As part of his project, Polybius set a six-part model of constitutional circular behavior, basically a lifecycle model. Polybius begins with kingship as the source of executive and legislative authority. Eventually the kingship will pervert into a tyranny. When conditions become bad, the aristocracy will rise up and take government stewardship from the tyrant. Eventually the aristocracy corrupts and devolves into an oligarchy. The oligarchy will eventually become so burdensome that citizens will rebel and form a democracy. Democracy, failing to meet expectations, will pervert into mob rule which sets the conditions for the rise of the “man on a white horse” to save the people as an autocrat and begins the cycle of change from one form to a successor form.
Polybius lived in an age when kingship (monarchy, autocracy) were common forms of government. Setting aside these terms or titles, the circular nature of his constitutional model is evident. You do not have to scratch too deep to see modern comparisons to Polybius. Essentially he described three positive conditions (kingship, aristocracy and democracy) and three perversions (tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy or mob rule). Each form follows another form and creates conditions for its replacement, thus the circular nature of a constitution.
If enough citizens believe that we are indeed teetering on the brink of an ochlocracy and mob rule where intimidation paralyzes government and shatters civic order, then perhaps we invite conditions that call for a strong, authoritarian figure, just as Polybius predicted. This writer is not suggesting we are rushing head-long into a breakdown, but clearly with civil discourse approaching mob-like rhetoric, perhaps it is time to take another look at our constitution and renew our faith in this great document. And perhaps even dust off Polybius and gain insight and wisdom that might be applicable in 21st century America.