Umberto Eco on the end of democracy

Big Chilly once told me that he greatly respected how I often use my
public platform for mysterious and seemingly nonsensical purposes. In
that light, it gives me great pleasure to present more of that for which
no one is asking, a translation of an article by Umberto Eco which
appeared on June 25th in L’espresso: Apparire piu come essere.

To appear more than to be

Sixty-four years before Christ, Marcus Tullius Cicero, already a
celebrated orator but the epitome of a New Man, estranged from the
nobility, decided to declare himself a candidate for Consul. His
brother, Quintus Tullius, wrote for him a manual in which he was
instructed how to make an impression. In the front of the current
Italian edition, (Manuele del candidato – Istruzioni per vincere le elezioni, editore Manni, 8 euros),
are comments by Luca Canali, in which he lucidly describes the
histoical circumstances and the personalities of that campaign. Furio
Colombo writes the introduction, with a reflective essay on the First

In fact, there are many similarities between our Second Republic and
this Roman Republic, in the virtues, (very small), as well as the
defects. The example of Rome, over the course of more than two
millenia, has continued to hold much influence on many successive
visions of the State. As Colombo records, the antique model of the
Roman Republic inspired the authors of the Federalist Papers, which
delineated the fundamental lines of the American Constitution. They saw
in Rome, more than in Athens, the example of what was truly a democracy
of the people. In their pragmatic realism, the neocons around Bush
were inspired by the image of imperial Rome and many of their actual
political discussions gave recourse to the idea of an empire, that of a
“Pax Americana” which makes explicit reference to the ideology of the
“Pax Romana”.

I must note that the image of electoral competition that emerges in
the 20 pages of Quintus is of extremely small virtue compared to that
which had inspired the federalists of the 18th century. Quintus does
not seem to even consider the possibility of a political man who boldly
confronts the electorate in the face of dissent with a courageous
project, with the hope of conquering the voters on the powerful strength
of a utopian idea. As Canali also notes, totally absent from these
pages is any notion of debating ideas; instead, there is recommendation
to never expose oneself on any political issue, so as to avoid making
enemies. The candidate envisioned by Quintus must only be sure to
appear fascinating, doing favors and other self-promotion, never saying
no to anyone but leaving everyone with the impression he will do what
they want. The memory of the electorate is short, and before long they
will forget old promises….

At the end of the letter we ask: but is democracy truly only this, a
form of conquering the public favor that is founded on nothing but
appearances and a strategy of deceit? It is certainly so, and it cannot
be differently if this system, (which, as Churchill said, is imperfect,
but is less imperfect than all the others), allows one to arrive at
power only through consensus and not through force and violence. But we
must not forget that these instructions for a political campaign were
written at moment when Roman democracy was already in crisis.

It was not long after when Caesar definitively took power with the
assistance of his legions, and with his life Marcus Tullius paid the
passage from a regime founded on consensus to a regime founded on the
fist of the State. But one cannot avoid the thought that Roman
democracy had begun to die when its politicians understood that they no
longer had to be serious about their policies but had only to engineer
the obtaining of the sympathies of those we might well call television

This demonstrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun. In
our modern arrogance, we believe that we are different, that our
pseudo-democracy, (as false in every way to the democratic ideal as was
its Roman predecessor), is a light illuminating all mankind. Quintus
Tullius might easily have been Dick Morris or Karl Rove, advising
hollow-suited frauds such as Bill Clinton and George Bush.

The laws of history are not as easily discerned as the laws of
physics, but they are every bit as inexorable. Eco gives us one more
reason to believe that we are living in the last days of the American