Let’s have a show of hands. How many of you couldn’t wait for History class when you were in school? Hmmm. Not exactly a throng. Okay, then how many would at least rather learn about the Civil War than do a book report on Great Expectations? All right, we’re making progress now. How about this: Would you prefer to study about the winter of 1776 at Valley Forge or do long division problems all morning? There we go. That’s better. I knew we’d get a majority sooner or later.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the quote usually attributed to writer and philosopher George Santayana who said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Just lately, that thought has resurfaced on the world stage as the leaders of two prominent countries seek to cement their places high atop their respective governmental food chains.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are simultaneously seeming to prefer “President for Life” titles rather than have to deal with pesky things like elections and the will of the people. Not that the Russian and Chinese plebians have historically really ever had a big say at the polls, but at least the pretense of “my vote counts” has been present.
As of this writing, Putin is running for another six-year term as President. That would be on top of the two terms he served in that office from 2000-2008, the four years he spent as puppet master pulling the strings of Dmitry Medvedev (because Putin couldn’t serve more than two consecutive terms at the time), and his latest six-year stint dating back to 2012. (The term length was changed from four to six years during Medvedev’s era.)
Vlad is expected to win re-election this month rather handily, especially since his opponents tend to either mysteriously disappear, are ruled ineligible, or get totally discredited in the press, which, coincidentally, Putin’s minions basically control.
Xi Jinping started his second term in office last fall with what has been described as a coronation by the rubber-stamp Party Congress in Beijing. He is now referred to as a “core leader,” a moniker applied to only a very few leaders, Mao Zedong being one of them.
And speaking of Mao (that’s Mao Tse Tung to those over 50), some may recall his “Little Red Book” of sayings that was required reading (and memorization) for Chinese students during his iron-fisted rule. The Party Congress has recently added “Xi Jinping Thought” to its constitution. Reports from those in the know suggest that act effectively allows Xi to hold power for life. That is, if he wants to. Like Putin, Xi totally dominates the media, limits Internet activity, and just doesn’t invite dissenters (say, Western journalists) to any events.
Why are these ongoing events of any interest to us? Remember that “history repeating itself” stuff? Joseph Stalin had absolute power over Russia for a couple of decades in the 1930s and 40s. During his reign, somewhere between 30-40 million citizens were killed, many part of the intelligentsia that tried to oppose the Red Tsar. His successors (mainly Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev) ramped up the Cold War and escalated the arms race.
The aforementioned Mao reputedly made sure about 80 million or so Chinese weren’t around to question his authority. Up until Richard Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy in 1972 and Mao’s death a couple of years later, fiat was the rule of law in that country of a billion people.
Now, all that is not to say that either Putin or Xi will follow that pattern of their predecessors. They both could be swell guys for all I know, with nothing but the best interests of their people in mind. But absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, as the saying goes.
Right now, here in the U.S., it’s probably best to just watch our backs. And thank our Founders once again for our Constitution. After FDR’s four elections, the document was amended to limit Presidents to two terms. Some on both sides of the aisle have lamented that addition over the years (Republicans liked Ike for a third term, and many Democrats wouldn’t have been adverse to four more years of Obama). It is comforting to know eight years is the longest We the People ever have to put up with someone we really don’t like. (Given the divisiveness of the country of late, many feel as if four years is way too long.)
Maybe we should suggest a little history lesson to the Russian and Chinese people. (It beats that Dickens’ book report any day.)
©MMXVIII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer