Echoes of Superstition: Questions of Legitimacy and Regime Change Through the Ages

Governments live and die by their legitimacy. No matter what form a state’s governance takes, from tribal chieftaincy to theocracy to monarchy to representative assembly and everything in between, losing justification for holding on to power has historically led inexorably to regime change if it’s not regained swiftly and decisively. Exactly what that legitimacy looks like, however, has changed radically from people to people and era to era. Yet as much as we like to think that the past, especially the distant past, is a foreign place to our modern sensibilities, I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels in this area as we hurtle towards another general election this November in the United States.

In many ways, the idea of governmental legitimacy is a broader form of the social contract concept that so much of modern political philosophy is based on. Even in the ancient world, there was a reciprocal relationship between what societies expected of their rulers and how long those rulers were allowed to remain in power unchallenged. Indeed, monarchs’ rhetoric about their own unapproachable power could often serve as a double-edged sword; if you say that prosperity, safety, strength, even the behavior of the weather is your responsibility, then the loss of any or all of those is equally your fault. Ancient and medieval Chinese society famously codified this relationship in the idea of the Mandate of Heaven. A ruler’s cosmic legitimacy and holding of the Mandate was seen through the harmony and benevolence of the natural world, while the occurrence of earthquakes, floods, famine, or other catastrophes signaled a ruler or even entire dynasty had lost the Mandate and could be used to justify rebellion against them. Roman Emperors dealt with a similar formula, whereby their accession to the throne could be precarious unless followed by some form of accomplishment, ideally one that involved conquest and feats of arms. Martial reverses or plagues could alternatively lead to further efforts to prop up the regime in different ways like law codification or, alternately, civil war. Naturally, many of these destabilizing factors were entirely outside of rulers’ control (notwithstanding what some may have believed), and I’ve often nodded sagely reading such accounts while at least subconsciously being grateful societies no longer hold to such superstitions. But is that really the case? Have we truly left behind the notion that our leaders are responsible for everything in our lives?

Nowadays, ideas of legitimacy are most often framed through the lens of where power stems from: the people, money, birth, divine right, along with the proper way of mobilizing that legitimacy. The decades-long Cold War can best be read not as a standoff between two nations or alliances but as a contest between the legitimacy of two opposing visions of how government should work, measured by everything from technological advances to standard of living and happiness. Just like ancient rhetoric, however, these standards of legitimacy cut both ways. With a few notable and stultifying exceptions, we are thankfully past the era of seeing natural disasters as signals of corrupt government, but if you look closer at what issues matter to voters, you’ll see that modern democracies can be just as susceptible to blaming those in charge for things outside their control. “Voting with your wallet” in particular has become standard, and yet so many of the economic issues that motivate people to support or oppose candidates for the Presidency in particular are at best indirectly related, and often not connected at all. Blaming presidents for the creation or loss of jobs, gas prices, or, recently, the rise or fall of inflation at best relies on an unconstitutionally powerful and superhuman understanding of the office and at worst falls prey to the kind of uncritical, anti-intellectual “Things are bad and I blame the all-powerful leader” mentality that ancient Roman or Chinese peasant would be right at home with. Indeed, if a modern leader would actually pursue the steps necessary to “fix” inflation, they would be accused of violating foundational principles of free market capitalism and the role of government in the economy–in short, of being an un-Western, un-democratic socialist.

So we as a society still cling to the old superstitions that, if our leader is in the right, the rest of the universe will remain in balance? In some ways, I think we do. This may not be entirely a bad thing; actions do have ripple effects, and just because a president isn’t directly responsible for something doesn’t mean that one of his actions didn’t have indirect influence, and I would certainly err too far towards holding leaders accountable than let them off the hook for anything and everything. Perhaps, then, this should simply serve as a reminder that, for all our historical relativism, basic human impulses and behaviors have remained remarkably similar down through the millennia, and to be a bit more deliberately intellectual in our own reactions and political decision making than our illustrious forebears whenever we can.

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