Why do people cede power to dictators?

Mike Flynn
4 min readNov 2, 2020

I’d like to keep democracy very much. But I’m not sure in practice that a fearful, apathetic, disinterested double digit percentage of Americans have a strong sense of what the other options are and the pros and cons.

People have been ceding power to authoritarian governments for a long time, sometimes for better sometimes for worse.

In fact the word “Dictator” started being used formally in Rome around 500 B.C.

It was agreed that in time of emergency, public officers voluntarily ceded their power and appointed a dictator with sweeping powers. The dictator’s term was 6 months, and he customarily relinquished powers as soon as the crisis passed.

There is contemporary precedent for this during time of war. The United States under Commander in Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chief of Staff George Caitlin Marshal assumed supreme command of the Allies’ military efforts during the latter portion of World War Two because timeliness and coordination were of the utmost essence.

Returning to our Roman history example:

* In the first decade of the fifth century B.C. Rome’s Latin allies revolted and Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis, was appointed as one of the first dictators
* For nearly four centuries the system served its purpose fairly well
* During the period 133 B.C. to 44 B.C. Rome fell into a chronic period of economic and social issues
* Capitalizing on the opportunity, in 49 B.C. Julius Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon river igniting civil war

Caesar crossing the Rubicon River with his army

Let’s pay close attention. What happened next led to centuries of prolonged dictatorship in Rome and the western world.

* After defeating his opposition, in 48 B.C. Caesar became dictator temporarily
* Using his sweeping power he instituted a series of reforms that were arguably needed, however he chose not to renounce his dictator title
* 46 B.C. he assumed dictatorship for an unprecedented 10 years
* 44 B.C. he became dictator for life, cut short by his assassination a month later due to senatorial outrage

The greatest danger is when a temporary abridgment of rights during time of crisis becomes permanent.

Why was Caesar able to assume and expand for himself the planned duration of his autocratic rule? Simple:

The body of citizens had become apathetic. They had lost belief they could manage their own problems without further disaster.

For lack of a solution to chronic economic and social issues there was support for dictatorial power.

Sound familiar? What are we to do about it?

The reality is citizens will not make an effort to actively participate unless they feel their participation will be effective.

This is in essence means spreading power over a wider base.

Yes, it is true that a democracy sometimes makes mistakes and ignores diligent and earnest leaders who are poor at promoting themselves. Critics of democracy note this undeniable weakness.

Universal suffrage does have the risk of giving power to people who have not had opportunities to develop philosophy that will lead us in a wise direction. But let’s be honest the potential for lack of wisdom is an equal opportunity affliction.

There is a historically informed approach and a short sighted approach.

Shortsighted approach:
* engage in a political arms race
* at worst intentionally stifling votes, packing courts and other appointment positions with ideologically or politically motived rather than empathetic, wise, capable individuals
* at best focusing on outwitting political opponents to get more constituent voters out than your competition

Historically informed approach:
* We must rekindle the flicker of learning in adults, without it we are doomed
* We must rise everyone’s position in life, it is spiritual and ethical duty of all persons, especially those with means to lift as many people as possible into a position of education so that they will foster wise choices. Part of this is ensuring people are not in poverty economically and philosophically.
* We also aid our fellow citizens in developing the ability to sort out and seek the truth for ourselves, through triangulating multiple pieces of often paradoxical or contradictory pieces of information.

We face in this day 2020 the same sort of dilemma as the Romans did in their practice of dictatorship.

We can honor the grave intent of our founders to provide a bed in which democracy rather than de facto monarchy reigns, but it requires a redoubling of efforts to ensure we have an educated and wise populace, empowered to tackle challenges head on.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the Romans, and honor the spiritual work of our more recent founders of American independence. There was strong reasoning for rebelling Against a non representative government and there still is great benefit to representative government. Ceding our power in hopes that leader(s) will solve our problems for us, while better than anarchy, is anathema to the American experiment.

Soldiers froze in the cold of Valley Forge so that the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention could bear fruit. There will be sacrifices we all have to make no matter what, I prefer being in the driver’s seat in a democracy and I hope you do as well.

Next — I’ll be writing on some of the disciplines Benjamin Franklin discovered as a quintessential new American. We’ll need healthy practices like the ones he developed, adapted for today, to dig ourselves out of our national predicaments, no matter what the outcome of our elections.

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Mike Flynn

For whatever it's worth, I'm seeking to share any wisdom, insights and gifts of learning I've been fortunate enough to receive.