One cannot look at the news today without having to face the nature of governance. Is democracy worth the time spent negotiating and contesting rather than acting? Or, would a strong leader (usually a man) be better at getting things done even if the price was the loss of tolerance and doing away with regulations aimed at enhancing equity and well-being, building consensus, and combatting corruption or the erosion of the even-handed rule of law? In normal times, the latter presents a dangerous slippery slope even if what one thinks needs to get done is implemented more rapidly and efficiently. But it is when disaster strikes that the key difference separates democratic governance—where leaders are invested, at least to a degree, in general well-being, and autocratic regimes—where empathy and caring seem to cease at a small circle close to the center of power. This is a sad mantra, unfortunately repeated with too much regularity around the globe today. But there is no more vivid example than the horrific scenes in Turkey and Syria where politics and corruption mean that too little help is arriving too late.
Can a recurrent relationship between governance and societal sustainability be documented in history? Most examinations of the past look to document a link between disastrous hazards and the fall of centers or polities (e.g., volcanic eruptions and Bronze Age collapse). But such efforts are plagued by chronological uncertainties as well as the absence of comparative frames that would allow assessment as to whether certain places persisted and were resilient to hazards while others were not, and why. Another way to proceed is to examine and compare the duration of centers or polities, considering their differentials in governance, while figuring that most places in history faced an array of challenges both natural and cultural. Following that research design, the persistence or duration of democratically (or pluralistically) governed entities could be compared with more autocratic ones.
To date, few studies have examined this question systematically. In their study of 30 premodern states and empires, Richard Blanton and Lane Fargher (2008) found that the collectively governed polities in their sample endured slightly longer than autocratically ruled ones. Two of us (Feinman and Carballo 2018) looked at 26 central places from across the prehispanic era in Mesoamerica, and noted a consistent, determinative, relationship between collective governance and apogee duration. In a more recent study of 24 early central places (Feinman et al. 2023), situated in the western half of Mesoamerica and founded between 1000-300 BCE, the relationship between collective governance and occupational persistence was again affirmed. In this recent study, we were also able to illustrate that the institutions built by the populations of some of the centers included a high degree of economic cooperation between domestic units and the creation of central public spaces to facilitate social interaction across the community. These steps fostered greater sustainability, as measured by the duration of apogee. Looking at the ongoing tragedy in Turkey and Syria, tentative lessons we draw from history might include that the nature of governance makes a difference in responses to disasters, but the cooperative steps we take even before crises hit also matter.
Gary M. Feinman, David M. Carballo, Linda M. Nicholas, and Stephen A. Kowalewski