Modern democracy gives us the best governments the world has ever seen. Or maybe Winston Churchill put it better when he said, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But democracy hasn’t taken root everywhere. And its success has robbed all other governments of legitimacy — everywhere. That includes monarchy: once the world’s most stable form of government. So a country that can’t adopt democracy has no legitimate option. The result: brutal strongmen, like Vladimir Putin, as well as authoritarian hierarchies, like the Chinese Communist Party.
Throughout most of history, monarchy provided the most popular and stable form of government. Kings, emperors, caliphs, sultans, grand dukes, and princes ruled almost every land. And their authority almost always came from above. The Russian Czar headed the Russian Orthodox Church and had been chosen by God to lead a new Roman Empire. The Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven. Islam’s Caliph was the successor of the Prophet Muhammed. Even the count of little independent Catalonia was anointed as God’s viceroy.
Further legitimacy came from the monarchs’ ancestors. Rulers were sons and occasionally daughters of former rulers. And they descended from historic monarchs or from legendary heroes or both. The King of Tonga, for instance, claimed descent from a demigod. Even new dynasties often claimed a line of royal ancestors (often fake). Ancestry lent legitimacy because most of the world respected family inheritance — of everything from farm tools to kingdoms.
Other Legitimate Governments
Other types of government held sway before modern democracy. But none had the staying power of monarchy.
The city-states of the Classical Mediterranean generally favored aristocratic republics. Councils of noblemen ran the government — like the Roman Senate, the drm (“great ones”) of Carthage, and the oligarchic assemblies of Greek city-states (poleis) like Thebes and early Athens. These were legitimate governments in their people’s eyes, but they lacked a kingdom’s stability. The Roman Republic fell, of course, replaced by Augustus and his successor emperors. And the Greek city-states suffered regular turmoil and changes of constitution. That includes the revolution that transformed Athens into an early (limited) democracy. Ultimately, most Greek city-states fell to Alexander the Great and became subjects of the Macedonian kings that followed him. Monarchies lasted longer.
Priests ruled some historic realms too. A Dalai Lama ruled Tibet for centuries, for example. And the Catholic Pope ruled Italy’s Papal States starting in the 700s CE. Most of these priests, however, reigned as monarchs. A hazy line separates ruling priests and kings. In fact, many monarchs arguably qualify as both, like ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs and the Aztecs’ Moctezuma.
Democracy Claims a Monopoly on Legitimacy
Modern democracy arose in Great Britain, gradually, starting with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Then it leapt to prominence with the U.S. Constitution of 1789. The American system resembled Britain’s, but it gave the vote more authority. And America’s Founding Fathers trumpeted democratic values much more than their British cousins.
The French Revolution did even more to spread the new system. Modern democracy failed catastrophically in France’s First Republic, but it still inspired people all over Europe. That and the success of the American and British democracies slowly convinced Europeans that democracy offers the best governments. From 1800 through the middle of the 20th Century, the new system took over the continent.
Meanwhile, Europe had taken over the rest of the world. The colonial empires of the 1800s spread European ideas, including democracy. (That required some serious hypocrisy since the Europeans denied self-rule to the people they conquered.) All over the world, the rhetoric and success of democracy planted the idea that there is no other legitimate government.
The End of Kings
With democracy monopolizing legitimacy, kingdoms faded and fell. Europe’s great monarchies were gone by 1918. And when the European empires pulled back from the rest of the world during the middle of the 20th Century, their former subjects rarely even considered kingdoms. Almost all enacted democratic constitutions.
Many of those constitutions failed, however. Democracy did not take hold in China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Nicaragua, Peru, and so, so many other states. Yet those countries could not return to the stability of monarchy. It was no longer considered legitimate.
The result was illegitimate republics. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, rules Russia, much like the Czars of old. But he lacks their legitimacy. He has to pretend he’s an elected leader, rigging elections by keeping real rivals from running and by stuffing ballot boxes. And then he imprisons or kills anyone who points out the fraud. Putin also needs to smother political opposition, since it could easily overwhelm his illegitimate regime. Finally, he cannot lose a war, like the current one in Ukraine. Lacking legitimacy, he has to rely on the appearance of strength. If he looks weak, he’s dead.
Russia is not unusual. China’s government has little basis for legitimacy either. It’s not a democracy. Nor is it communist, despite the ruling party’s name. (Communism never established much legitimacy anyway.) So the Chinese hierarchy has to oppress its people to stay in power. The same goes for governments in Belarus, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and many other countries.
Of course, some historic monarchs oppressed their people too, for various reasons (including because they were usurpers, without legitimacy, like England’s Edward III). But legitimacy greatly reduced the need to repress dissent.
Monarchy, Present and Past
Today, even countries that do have monarchies struggle with legitimacy. During the 20th Century, monarchies survived in countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and Cambodia. But like the pretend-democratic regimes, they lacked widely accepted divine or ancestral rights to rule. So they had to repress their people to stay in power. The Saudi king still does. (Constitutional monarchies like Japan and the United Kingdom don’t count. They’re democracies.)
In other words, regular people faced less repression under traditional kings than under their modern successors, whether fake republics or modern monarchies. By robbing those traditional monarchies of legitimacy, democracy created a mess for the rest of the world.
© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- Portrait of Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701 or 1702
- Poulaho king of the Friendly Islands [Tonga] (cropped), engravings after John Webber published in London by Alexander Hogg in 1790
- The 4th Dalai Lama, the omniscient Yonten Gyatso, detail from a thangka (scroll)
- Battle of the Boyne between James II and William III, 12 July 1690, Jan van Huchtenburg
- Coat of Arms of the Republic of Sudan
- Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Beijing with General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China Xi Jinping, Presidential Executive Office of Russia – Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
- King Khalid bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Press Agency, 1977
Thoughtful article. I enjoyed that. Good context for seeing the hopelessness of Russia’s and China’s efforts to compete with the west as equals.