Franke: To See the Future, Look to the Past

June 1, 2022

by Mark Franke

People consider me old fashioned, even medieval, in my thinking and outlook. I plead guilty.

As I observe what is happening in our society, my fears for the future only intensify. That’s why I look continually to the past for a useful insight into the future.

How would you describe our political system? According to the Constitution, we are a republic or representative democracy. Democracy is the ideal form of government yet my reading informs me that Athens, the birthplace of democracy, ended in an orgy of ostracism, executions and tyranny of the mob.

Then a republic must be the better form. Our Constitution was modeled on Republican Rome, or at least what those Enlightenment thinkers believed about Rome’s governance in the centuries before Christ. Apparently they ignored the bloody civil wars, demagogic oratory and mob violence, ended only by a dictatorship of the strongest military commander in town.

We do tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, a type of halo effect within our memories. I am guilty of that, to be sure, insisting on a romantic recollection of my childhood years in the 1950’s. Ike was president, his grandfatherly image engraved indelibly in my mind. No drugs in my neighborhood, no 24-hour news channels, no social media. What could be better than that?

But back to my question. What political term best describes the America of 2022? Fortunately the Greeks thought deeply about this and coined a plethora of words.

They knew about mobocracy, having observed it up close and personal. Their word for this is ochlocracy. This is a Darwinian, survival of the fittest approach to politics. Power resides with whichever group yells the loudest and disrupts normal life the most. That sounds to me like today’s America, at least on my bad days.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have several terms: aristocracy, the rule of the best; plutocracy, the rule of the richest; oligarchy, the rule of the few; and finally autocracy, the rule of the one. I would argue that we are devolving downward into aristocracy, but a self-appointed aristocracy. The cultural, educational, media and political elites are aristocrats, mostly because they tell us they are. Pardon me if I beg to differ. Give me the commonsense philosophy found among residents in rural areas, small towns and blue-collar suburbs any day.

Are we simply following a historical imperative that all governments descend into despotism at some point? The Roman historian Polybius thought so as he saw a circular relationship among the forms of government, which each moving onward to the next stop.

Which brings up a more philosophical question. What is the march of history? Does it move in a straight line toward some dystopian future such as Aldous Huxley envisioned? Or is it moving toward the perfection of mankind as the 19th century progressives believed? Of course the human race has been quite a disappointment to our modern progressives by refusing to be dragged kicking and screaming into this unwanted nirvana.

Perhaps it is more of a circular movement, always returning to some starting point in a recursive manner. What goes around, comes around as the old saw reminds us. A quick survey of historical eras lends credence to this view. Consider northern Italy and the history of its city-states from Roman domination to republicanism to oligarchy and so on.

My sense is that these two theories should be conflated into a spiraling pattern, consistently moving circularly back to its starting point but each time further along toward its destiny. That destiny is not what the progressives expected; I don’t look for any perfection of mankind. In fact, I expect quite the opposite—a degradation of ourselves and our society until we have returned to barbarism. Tour our major cities if you find this incredulous.

I am not without hope. I just wouldn’t bet on things getting better. That does not mean we should give up and retreat to a mountain hideout; our children and grandchildren must live in this world. We owe it to them to try to make things better or, at a minimum, mitigate the evil.

That’s why I look to the past, to find evidence that things can get better even if only for a short time. Actually, I just don’t look to the past; I run there as fast as I can. It does not always prove comforting but a study of history does suggest alternatives to the cable news narrative. It doesn’t have to be all bad in the short run and in the long run we will all be dead, as Keynes quipped.

An ancient Chinese proverb goes something like this: It is better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness. Our world needs more candles.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.



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