Daron Acemoglu, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics, MIT Sloan School of Management
From Project Syndicate
In the Middle Ages, Italian city-states led the European “commercial revolution” with innovations in finance, trade, and technology. Then something strange happened. In 1264, to take one example, the people of Ferrara decreed that, “The magnificent and illustrious Lord Obizzo … is to be Governor and Ruler and General and permanent Lord of the City.” Suddenly, a democratic republic had voted itself out of existence.
In fact, this was not an uncommon occurrence in Northern Italy at the time. As Niccolo Machiavelli explains in The Prince, the people, seeing that they cannot resist the nobility, give their support to one man, in order to be defended by his authority. The lesson is that people will abandon democracy if they are worried that an elite has captured its institutions.
Medieval Italy’s democratic institutions succumbed to what we might now call populism: an anti-elitist, anti-pluralistic, and exclusionary strategy for building a coalition of the discontented. The method is exclusionary because it relies on a specific definition of “the people,” whose interests must be defended against not just elites, but all others. Hence, in the United Kingdom, the Brexit leader Nigel Farage promised that a vote for “Leave” in 2016 would be a victory for the “real people.” As Donald Trump told a campaign rally the same year, “the other people don’t mean anything.” Likewise, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe often speaks of the “gente de bien” (the “good people”).
MIT Sloan Professor Simon Johnson
MIT Professor Daron Acemoglu
From Foreign Policy
Most Americans tend to believe that they’ve lived under the same form of government, more or less, since the country was founded in late 1700s. They’re mistaken.
It’s true that there have been important continuities. The American conception of what government should and should not do is deeply rooted in clear thinking at the start of the republic; the country has long preferred limited government and effective constraints on capricious executive action. But this persistence of core ideas (and the consistent use of the same buildings in Washington, D.C.) obscures the dramatic changes that have taken place within the governing institutions themselves.
In fact, formidable challenges at the end of the 19th century were met by fashioning a transformation so thorough it could effectively be deemed a “Second Republic.” This new republic came with significantly different economic and political rules — and, as a result, enabled the American system to survive and even thrive for another century. Today, faced with serious economic and political dysfunction, we are in need of another round of deep institutional renewal: a Third Republic.
The conditions that brought about the first transformation of American society are strikingly similar to those we see today. At the root of the problems confronting the United States by 1900 was a wave of innovation that sped up growth. The direct benefits of these new technologies accrued to a few, while many others became more uncertain about their economic future.