The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The effects of bad government

What 14th-century Italian frescoes tell us about America

State patrol officers stand guard as people rally outside Minnesota's state Capitol in St. Paul on May 31. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The four days since Spoiler Alerts last appeared feels more like four decades. In that stretch of time, protests have engulfed American cities, rockets have been launched into space, and the vacuum of leadership in Washington has been felt in the country and in the world.

These are moments when those of us who are paid to write for a living are expected to explain What It All Means. While I was attending a protest in my hometown, one of the African American speakers pleaded with the rest of us to use our “damn talent” to communicate what this moment means to those not directly affected.

My talents are meager, but I can recognize a timeless lesson on occasion. Which is why, to explain the current moment, we need to look at 14th-century frescoes in Siena, Italy.

In my office at the Fletcher School are re-creations of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” painted on commission for a civic group in the Republic of Siena between the winter of 1338 and the spring of 1339. Lorenzetti’s frescoes depict what good and bad government look like, as well as the effects of those types of government on the country and city.

The political theorist Quentin Skinner has written about Lorenzetti’s masterpieces at length. As he notes, the differences between the allegories of good and bad government are stark. In the symbolic portrayal of bad government, “Justice is shown seated on the ground, dressed in a plain white shift, her feet shackled and her golden hair unkempt. The cords of her balance have been severed, its pans have been cast aside and one of the cords has been seized by a choleric figure who is also holding the rope with which she is bound.”

As for the allegory of good government? According to Skinner, “we see Justice raised to the level of Peace. She is wearing an archaic tablet-woven robe encrusted with precious stones and her golden hair is plaited elegantly.”

The role of the state in the effects of good and bad government are also stark. Government officials are barely visible in Lorenzetti’s depiction of a well-governed city, in no small part because of the bustling variety of civic and commercial activity. On the other hand, the state is omnipresent in Lorenzetti’s depiction of a badly governed city. Soldiers are seizing citizens; the only observable business is the armorer.

There are obvious feedback effects between the role of the state and the health of a polity. It is certainly true that lawless behavior will ineluctably require the response of the state. Some of the destruction that has occurred during the past 72 hours requires the police to endeavor to keep the peace.

Lorenzetti’s frescoes remind us, however, that the causality primarily works in reverse. When the capricious actions of the state signal an absence of justice, trust between a government and its citizens withers. The outcome is an omnipresent, militarized state and an impoverished civil society.

The unrest of the past week is not some bolt out of the blue. George Floyd’s gruesome death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers was the proximate fuse. Floyd’s name has been added to a ledger that includes, just in the past few years, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Botham Jean and Breonna Taylor, among others. There are too many instances for this to be a result of “bad apples” in the nation’s police departments.

A persistent pattern of police brutality against minorities going largely unpunished guaranteed the explosion would be this large. This is like being surprised that a steaming pot of water is now boiling over. For African Americans, justice has been shackled for quite some time, and those in power have decried previous nonviolent efforts to register dissent.

There is an excellent chance that matters will get worse. All of this is happening in the backdrop of a pandemic that has hit minorities harder than anyone else. In the past three months, 40 million more Americans have become unemployed, most of them on the lower end of the income spectrum. The overaggressive responses of several metropolitan police departments in the past 48 hours have only inflamed the situation further. An administration that thinks only in terms of militarizing the conflict and a president who wants to sic dogs on the protesters will not cool down the situation (it is not a coincidence that the places where law enforcement officers defused the situation experienced no violence).

Bad cops do not excuse property destruction. But those who believe that only demonstrations of force will increase security fail to comprehend the underlying causes of social unrest. The trigger behind all of this has been the inexact administration of justice. Until that is fixed, or at least until elected officials show that they mean to fix it, any government action will be treating the symptoms and not the disease. Madmen in authority advocating for “using the unlimited power of our military” are only inviting bloodshed.

This started with injustice. The only important question is whether it will end that way as well.