Republished from americanmagazine.org
Throughout its uncommonly long run as an independent republic—from roughly the late 12th century to the coming of Napoleon—the Italian city-state of Lucca had the same image on its coinage. It was customary then for coins to bear the face of the current, secular ruler in their place of origin. But the crowned head on Lucca’s coins was that of the Volto Santo, a wooden, Byzantine-styled, brown-skinned, black-bearded crucified Christ kept in the city’s cathedral. It was said to have been carved by Nicodemus and an angel at the time of Christ, then transported miraculously to Lucca by boat and ox-pulled cart in the eighth century. The earliest historical record of the Volto Santo and its cult, however, coincides with the origins of the republic.
The Volto Santo was, in effect, the king of Lucca, overseeing the republic’s varying fortunes and political arrangements, including rule by dukes, oligarchs, a kind of democracy and passing occupiers. Through all that, nobody could claim to be king except by uncrowning Christ, and nobody dared. Lucca therefore remained a republic, resistant to human kings.
Such a cult might be useful again today. Stateless currencies, interconnected markets and self-organizing social movements all point toward a future in which centralized authorities are no longer needed. Yet strongmen are seeking unchecked power and find mounting success in gaining it. Polling in the United States and other developed nations suggests increasing openness to the idea of authoritarian government, especially among younger people. (According to the World Values Survey, almost one-fourth of U.S. citizens ages 16 to 24 said that a democratic system was a “bad” way to run the country in 2011, about twice the percentage as among those over 65.) With nothing like the Volto Santo to assume the crown of 21st-century civilization, a new breed of political personalities is vying to dominate our attention.
Perhaps the authoritarian tide is a passing counter-reaction to an ascendant democratic, multicultural consensus. The data may be too inconsistent to constitute a trend. But with populist, perpetually viral, personality-driven regimes taking power in country after country, the long-held assumption that liberal democracy is the eventual destination of historical progress can no longer be taken for granted.
Across the United States during the last academic year, political science professors taught coordinated courses on the haunting premise of “democratic erosion”—that is, the widespread decline of democracy in theory and practice. The syllabus template included an article by Nancy Bermeo of the University of Oxford from 2016, which spells out a typology of “backsliding,” with gradual power grabs facilitated by “executive aggrandizement” (such as Obama-era executive orders) and “strategic electoral manipulation” (like Republican Party voter suppression tactics). Students considered examples of such backsliding from Ghana to Venezuela and from Hungary to Thailand. They learned to notice the ascendent formula of liberal economics combined with nationalist, authoritarian government, on display especially in Russia and China.
The familiar bulwarks of democratic consensus no longer seem interested in the job. The U.S. president has ceased to maintain even the fiction of championing democracy and human rights abroad. President Trump has praised the extrajudicial killings of the Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, reveled in the riches of Saudi royalty, congratulated Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for eroding checks on his power and maintained his longstanding, ambiguous admiration for Vladimir Putin. When President Xi Jinping of China secured the elimination of term limits earlier this year, Mr. Trump remarked, allegedly in jest, “Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”
These are now the images our children see of what leaders look like. These images will stick with them as they grow up.