Shinkoskey: The story of democracy
The recently re-aired PBS presentation “Nature to Nations” retells the story of North American democracy. It moves the birthplace of American democracy from Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention to a meeting of native tribes near Syracuse, New York, several hundred years earlier. The story is a fascinating one and demonstrates the historical precedence of native democracy over our own.
The program gives examples of political structures that had taken root on the American continents before Columbus. These include a couple of types of monarchy found in Central and South America, and the consensual government model formed by the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee Confederation in upstate New York.
The Iroquois tradition indicates that an Old Testament-type prophet figure called the Peacemaker read a new law to five hostile tribes, and weapons of war were buried in the ground. The tradition even involves a sub-plot involving negotiations between a holdout tribal chief and the Peacemaker, much like negotiations between Moses and the wayward Aaron, which were a necessary part of hammering out the twelve-tribe democracy of early biblical Israel.
The whole story of warring neighboring tribes finally losing their lust for war and discovering the power of political cooperation under the guidance of an inspired spiritual leader seems to have played out historically on virtually all of the earth’s continents. There is growing historical evidence for such confederations in Mesopotamia, India, China, and Africa, in addition to the Americas. These were part of an endlessly repeating cycle of kingship swinging to democracy and then swinging back to kingship.
This is, in fact, the very cycle that is playing out on the tail-end of American democracy today.
Our pale-faced ancestors broke with English monarchy, established a democracy, and decried ever returning to kingship. But return to it we have. Today we have essentially an elected kingship — a President with much of the power of a king but without the title. Our ancestors specified in the Constitution that only the Congress can lead the nation into war, but today the President initiates the nation’s military actions, a pattern first adopted at the start of the Korean War some 70 years ago.
Native Americans provide an example of the political swing to heavy-handed autocracy as well. The native version of the divine right of kings played out in the long-running Mayan civilization in southern Mexico and Central America. There the political model was a kingship having its economic and spiritual base in a great temple with a holy of holies where only the high priest could enter. This was much like the divine Davidic dynasty established by Solomon based in the Jerusalem temple and priesthood.
It is a discouraging fact of history that periods of hereditary monarchy and elected monarchy seem to last much longer than periods of limited executive power. The Moses-inspired democracy in Israel lasted only about 200 years before the people ignored Samuel’s advice and elected their first king Saul. The dynasty of their second king, David, then lasted some 400 years to the time of the Babylonian captivity of Israel.
The Roman democracy lasted but a couple hundred years before giving way to hyper-partisan citizen infighting, civil war, and autocracy lasting for 500 years or so after that. The Greek democracy followed a similar unhappy arc.
America now, too, has moved into the partisan violence phase of its history. If democracy establishes a divine basis, monarchy does it best to do so too, but with much less justification given the injustices and disparities of wealth associated with it. Today we have iniquities championed by both the left and the right, accompanied by the glow of self-righteousness suggesting divine approval.
Will we listen to a legitimate peacemaker today and learn once again how to cooperate with one another like both our native and immigrant ancestors taught us to do, or will we go the way of the Romans, Greeks, and Mayans? Things are not looking good.
Robert Kimball Shinkoskey is a retired government worker who writes citizen editorials for newspapers in the Intermountain West and for local papers across the country.