When a revolution loses revolutionary zeal and just repeats the pre-revolution business as usual, via bureaucratic inertia. The leaders and their rhetoric might change, but the injustices stay the same.
This generally happens, and for just the same reason that the phrase "The Revolution has been betrayed!" is such a cliché: egalitarian rhetoric is well and good, especially among those outside the establishment, but once an erstwhile egalitarian gets a taste of real power and discovers how sweet it is, he tends to get very willing very fast to remove, "by any means necessary", whatever obstacles stand between him and that power. This occurring not in a vacuum, but in competition with other revolutionaries who are making the same discovery at about the same time, the result generally is a multi-corned dogfight in which the most ruthless bastard is extremely likely to be the last left standing — which tends to have unfortunate consequences for the masses, from whom said bastard will have risen, and which might just elevate someone else to supplant him lest he ensure their loyalty.
Compare Reign of Terror; that, in fact, can naturally lead to this. Bloodbaths tends to make people lose fervor.
See also Meet the New Boss, for when the new villain doesn't even bother pretending to be any better than the one he's just deposed. For when the revolution was intended to place a new tyrant on the throne from the start see Staged Populist Uprising. Revolving Door Revolution is when the new government is deposed by another, which is deposed by another ad nauseam.
This trope has very strong Real Life connotations. Famous mathematician and physician Pierre-Simon de Laplace, who lived through the French Revolution, coined the term parabola of Revolution: it began from reign of the Bourbons, ascended like a parabola through constitutional monarchy, republic, reign of terror and pinnacled at Napoleon's empire; and then descended again through military defeats, restoration of Bourbons, 100 days' empire and Waterloo, and descended back to reign of the Bourbons, just like a parabolic arc.
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Parodied in this advert for supposedly sophisticated vodka.
Code Geass has an interesting subversion. By the end of the series, Emperor Lelouch has become an even worse evil overlord than his social Darwinist father. But that was the point, to unify the world through its hatred of him and arrange it so he was overthrown at the last minute, thereby giving the good guys the opportunity and public support necessary to rebuild the world's various monarchies and dictatorships as democracies instead. Prince Schneizel's plans to overthrow his father, however, would most likely have been a case of this played straight.
In Saint Beast, Zeus overthrows the tyranny of The Old Gods and subsequently becomes a tyrant in their place leading to another (failed) rebellion by the protagonists.
Junta, a satirical look at politics in The Most Serene Republic of Los Bananas, has a military coup occur approximately once every two turns. Of course, this just leads to one oligarch being shot by the firing squad and replaced by his cousin, and possibly a new Presidente and a reshuffling of cabinet posts among the oligarchs.
Executed subtly in Tintin and the Picaros: during the course of the book, the heroes help Tintin's friend General Alcazar overthrow the despotic General Tapioca from the leadership of San Theodoros (mostly because said despot imprisoned Madame Castafiore and sentenced Thomson and Thompson to death). However, the penultimate panel of the book is almost a carbon copy of an earlier one (showing soldiers patrolling a slum filled with starving people), only a sign now reads "Viva Alcazar" instead of "Viva Tapioca" and the police's uniforms are slightly different, hinting that nothing important has changed.
Also, Alcazar wants to execute a whole lot of people, starting with Tapioca of course, and is only kept in bay because Tintin is his Morality Pet, showing that Alcazar and Tapioca are as bad as each other. Tapioca actually consoles Alcazar over being stopped -that is, the man who just overthrew him and wants to shoot him. Similarly, the only reason Tintin became Alcazar's friend in the first place was because he ended up as his lieutenant. A few hours of slippage and he could have ended up as Tapioca's lieutenant just as easily.
Earlier books such as Broken Ear would depict Alcazar and Tapioca committing multiple coups on a daily basis against each other, running this straight into Revolving Door Revolution territory.
There is an Incredible Hulk story where the Hulk (technically Bruce Banner who controlled his body as Hulk) was taken to a planet where a green race was enslaved by a red race. The Hulk helped the green people overtake the rulers and before leaving asked them to live peacefully together. Looking through a telescope as he was getting far off he saw the red people enslaved by the green ones and wept.
One Wolverine story concerned Wolverine going to a Central American dictatorship because their state super-soldier program was based on haunted cocaine, and this worried him. By the end of the story, the dictator is dead and rebels are in power - but they ship the scientists of the super-soldier program off to the US in exchange for the CIA owing them a favour. As Wolverine is barging in to tell them off, the ruling council is discussing ways to be better than the old dictator, and shooting down every one because the country is too fragile.
Sillage has one, where Nävis helps overthrow a government that uses widespread slavery. She comes back years later to find her revolutionary friends doing quite well for themselves, except for the whole rebellious uprising thing (of, you guessed it, freedom-hungry slaves).
According to Valthoom, had Atrocitus' homeworld not been destroyed by the Manhunters, he would have led one of these, overthrowing the planet's corrupt leadership only to become such a tyrant that his own son eventually would have assassinated him.
Juan: I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, "We have to have a change." So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They're dead! That's your revolution. Shhh... So, please, don't tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!
Lord of War: Discussed by Yuri Orlov. "I guess they [African militants] can't own up to what they usually are: a federation of worse oppressors than the last bunch of oppressors. Often, the most barbaric atrocities occur when both combatants proclaim themselves freedom-fighters.”
In the “Look Down” number from the 2012 film adaption of ''Les Misérables'', Gavroche laments that although the people overthrew the oppressive monarchy during the French Revolution, the current government which replaced it is equally as unjust. This is what drives most of the plot of the film’s second half, which is based off the real-life, ill-fated June Rebellion of 1832.
More than one of the film’s songs allude to this feeling of repeated injustice:
“It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…”
“Red, the blood of angry men; black, the dark of ages past; red, a world about to dawn; black, a night that ends at last…"
In Mean Girls, Janis frames their smearing of Regina as "bringing down a dictator", and sure enough all they do is replace one Queen Bee with another one.
Lampshaded a few times in Blood Diamond, summed up as "T.I.A". (This is Africa.) Which means the government is going to be bad and corrupt, the rebels are going to be worse, (and corrupt) and the Mega Corp. and mercenary companies playing both sides so that they win no matter what happens are possibly the worst of all. (And corrupt.) Sure enough, when the RUF rebels take over, they make the previous government look downright good in comparison. Anti-Hero main character Danny Archer also mentions this happening in his backstory, when he was a child and watched rebels overthrow the government of Rhodesia and turn it into Zimbabwe.
One Soviet-era joke describes Leonid Brezhnev being visited by his mother and showing off his vacation dacha, his collection of luxury cars, etc. Noticing that his mother seemed troubled, he asked what was wrong. She replied, "I'm glad that you're doing so well, but I'm worried... what will happen to you if the Communists ever come back?"
William Butler Yeats' poem "The Great Day": "Hurrah for revolution and more cannon shot!/A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot./Hurrah for revolution, and cannon come again!/The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on."
Subverted in Mockingjay. The President of freedom-fighting District 13 appears to be going the way of the old President, complete with a continuation of the Hunger Games which the old regime used to keep the populace in line, but Katniss assassinates her before she comes to power.
Honor Harrington has two fictional governments of this kind: the Committee of Public Safety (modeled exactly on the historical French dictatorship), which self-destructs spectacularly, and the restored constitutional Republic of Haven, which is mostly getting its act together but is still plagued by internal corruption.
As noted in Night Watch, revolutions usually end up simply replacing one set of bastards with another set. "That's why they're called 'revolutions' — they always come round again."
And previously to that, in Interesting Times, when Rincewind refuses to help the communist rebels against the Agatean Empire, one of the things he points out is that their plans amount to setting up exactly the same government that they're trying to overthrow, just with different names.
Animal Farm was all a big allegory for how it went down in Russia. One ominous sign is at the gruesome scene of The Purge, where the animals consider that this is not what they had hoped to see after the revolution, and spontaneously start to sing the old revolutionary anthem "Beasts of England," only for the official propagandist Squealer to declare "Beasts of England" abolished. By the end of the tale, the pigs have become practically indistinguishable from their former human masters.
Nineteen Eighty-Four: Emmanuel Goldstein describes society as being in a state of continual successful but inconsequential uprisings, with the middle class of the time using the masses as pawns in its (often successful) attempt to trade places with the ruling class, and the process repeating every few decades/centuries. The extraordinary repression in Oceania is partly an attempt by the Dangerously Genre Savvy Party to prevent it from happening to them (largely, of course, they are just doing it For the Evulz).
L'Engrenage by Jean-Paul Sartre is about a country whose reactionary government is overthrown by a revolution, but before long the new regime realizes that it is unable to fulfill its promises, and goes back to the previous one's methods. Eventually it is itself overthrown by a new revolution, and the cycle starts anew.
Les Justes by Albert Camus, about a group of idealistic students who engage in terrorist acts in order to overthrow a despotic regime, features the famous quote "One begins by desiring justice, and one ends up setting up a police."
Mirror in the Mirror by Michael Ende contains a short story from the point of view of a tyrant who used to be one of these, while being chased through his crumbling palace by the men seeking to overthrow him.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin: Apart from showing how an anarcho-communist society would function, this is pretty much the entire point.
The ruling Targaryen dynasty is ousted by an alliance of powerful nobles and replaced by a Baratheon king. The new king doesn't kill people for amusement, but he's otherwise just as bad at ruling the kingdom, leaving it to his advisers and the feudal lords. His supposed son and heir is just as homicidal as the old king.
And just as inbred as the old king as well.
Daenarys Targaryen conquers Astapor, frees the slaves and installs a new government. Almost the moment she leaves, the government is overthrown by former rebel slaves, who support a new autocrat that reinstates slavery on the former ruling class.
In the X-Wing Series novel Starfighters of Adumar (part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe), Wedge confronts a New Republic diplomat who's willing to do whatever it takes to get an independent planet to join the NR, even adopting the methods of the Empire. Wedge declares this is the same as having the Empire back in power, just with different faces on the credit notes.
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation And Empire, a Trader from the Foundation references this trope to explain why he doesn't mind if the Empire wins the war against the Foundation. Of course, he is a spy sent to find out as much as possible about the Empire, so it makes sense he said anything to gain the confidence of the Imperial general.
Mistborn has some extremely odd cases of this. After the first book, a constitutional monarchy is instituted, with a high-ranking noble who sympathized with the revolutionaries as king. Then he gets voted out by the assembly and replaced with a different high-ranking noble, then the original king becomes a theocratic emperor thanks to the same person who killed the original theocratic emperor. There's also a large segment of the population that wants to go back to the old system because, while it was extremely oppressive and they could literally be killed at any time for any reason, it was more successful at providing food.
In Urth of the New Sun, Severian refuses to assist in deposing Typhon, considering that killing a bad leader is considerably easier than replacing him with a better one.
In Crossed, the final book in the Matched trilogy, various characters note that the Rising and the Society have a lot in common. It turns out that this is because the Society had infiltrated the Rising so deeply that by the time the rebellion actually occurred, it was simply the Society changing their name and then going about business as usual.
In Frank Herbert's Dune, Paul has successfully led the Fremen in overthrowing the old Padishah Emperor, and controls the flow of spice. In the sequel the Fremen are running rampant across the galaxy in a massive jihad to bring all worlds to Pauls control, Paul had foresaw this before hand and is helpless, as even though he is the most powerful man in the universe, he could not stop the slaughter his own people are doing.
Revolution: In the space of episode 19 and the first season finale, Tom Neville successfully takes Sebastian "Bass" Monroe's place as head of the Monroe Republic. Unfortunately, he proves to be just as bad, if not worse, than Monroe very quickly, because though he's not mentally ill like his predecessor, he has a severe case of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, and he's already breaking his word too many times too quickly.
Libby: Let me tell you about power - how to get it, how to keep it.
Stargate Atlantis: The tendency of revolutions to install just as tyrannical governments is mentioned after the Atlantis Expedition helps Radim take over the Genii. His regime is a bit less hostile to the Expedition though.
The Twilight Zone: In the episode "The Mirror," a revolutionary leader had just overthrown his country's dictator. Not long afterwards, he becomes paranoid, kills his acquaintances left and right, and soon becomes an even more ruthless and stab-happy dictator than the last one.
Young Indiana Jones: The History of Mexico from about 1860 to 1930, as summed up in the episode "Spring Break Adventure", where Indy gets caught up with the Mexican Revolution:
Old farmer: Listen, years ago I rode with Juárez against Emperor Maximilian. I lost many chickens but I thought it was worth it to be free. When Porfirio became President, I supported him – but he stole my chickens. Then came Huerta and he stole my chickens. Then it was Carranza’s term, and he stole my chickens too. Now comes Pancho Villa to liberate me and the first thing he does is steal my chickens!... What makes one different from the others? My chickens don’t know. All over the world revolutions come and go. Presidents rise and fall. They all steal your chickens. The only thing to change is the name of the man who takes them.
The storyline ofHoly Wood: In the Shadow of the Valley of Death by Marilyn Manson is this. An oppressed man orchestrates the revolution all on his own, ends up just as bad as those he overthrew. Some theories suggest he commits suicide upon realizing this as the final track treats us to the sound of a gun being loaded (but no gunshot). Considering it's only one of three interconnecting storyline albums, the plot and chronology of which are heavily debated and have never been officially explained, nobody really knows the consequences in this case.
As implied by the title, the basic message of "Revolution Roulette" by Poets Of The Fall is that "easy" solutions after a revolution lead to these.
Strange World by Gamma Ray even calls this "A never ending circle":
Another rider crying revolution... yeah.
Dream Theater's epic song entitled Octovarium deals with this trope.
Stumbling all around
Losing my place
Only to find I've come full circle
In Pippin, Pippin leads a revolution, overthrows his father, is crowned king, and promises his subjects a reign free of the slavery and bloodshed that distinguished his father's. He resolves to give their petitions the hearing his father denied. To the poor he distributes money, grants land to the peasants, abolishes taxes on the nobles, and dismisses the army. But the Infidel attacks in the East, murdering thousands of Pippin's subjects. Unwilling to supply the Hun with his head on a pike-staff, Pippin decides to rescind his reforms, and starts repressing the people just like his father did. When Fastrada praises Pippin for maintaining the same kind of rule his father did, he considers that maybe sticking a knife in his father's back wasn't such a good idea.
In Borderlands, a man describes the town Jaynistown run by and named for his brother Jaynis as a "Wretched Hive of scum and villainy" and tasks the player characters with killing Jaynis and his followers. After Jaynis is dead, the man claims that he will rename the town to Taylortown after himself and be its new leader. You are informed by the leader of New Haven, the primary city for the protagonists, that Taylor is known for being even worse than Jaynis and you are then tasked with cleaning up your own mess.
The only real difference between the Confederacy of Man and the Terran Dominion is that the latter regime doesn't bother pretending to be a democracy. James Raynor neatly summarizes it as follows:
"It's funny... it seems like yesterday Arcturus was the idealistic rebel crusader. Now he's the law, and we're the criminals."
In the novel StarCraft: Ghost: Nova, it's mentioned that Emperor Arcturus I is even less tolerant of rebels and dissidents than the Confederacy, sending Nova after a group of rebels who were previously on his side (they are, actually, the ones responsible for the murder of Nova's parents).
And then we get a Meet the New Boss in the form of the United Earth Directorate, who are worseaccording to the manual. Worth noting, the folks who formed the Confederacy were partly exiled political dissidents from the United Powers League, which preceded the Directorate.
The premise of Red Faction: Guerrilla: The story takes place fifty years after the first Red Faction and revolves around the fact that the Earth Defense Force (EDF), who helped save the day in the original game, have become cruel oppressors as bad as Ultor, leaving your character to join a resistance movement to liberate the planet.
Red Faction II has this in a single game. You play as a member of a nano-enhanced squad created by the tyrant Sopot, whom he later tries to kill. You fight on the side of the Red Faction to depose Sopot, which you end up doing by locking him in with a launching missile. Then you come back to the Red Faction HQ to see your commander killing the entire leadership of La Résistance, declaring himself the new chancellor. Before you can say anything, he declares you a traitor for no good reason, forcing you to fight him for the rest of the game. If anything, he's even worse than Sopot.
The leader of the reactionary force called ORCA is named Maximilian Thermidore. He aims to secure humanity's future by destroying the assault cells which prevent humans from leaving Earth. Willing to sacrifice millions of lives to achieve his goals he proves as brutal as the regime he is fighting against. He pilots the NEXT Unsung and holds rank one both within ORCA and within Collard. However, his methods, his targets, and his ideology are all different from the corporations, making him not exactly a perfect example of this trope.
Bangar was defeated by the three androids. It was a great victory for the opposition force. A few months later Mulk became the new president and created a fresh government. ... The development of the androids progressed, and these powerful weapons of Mulk's new government became far stronger than Bangar's old forces. The people seeing this said "History repeats itself."
Baldur's Gate 2 has Mazzy Fentan telling a tale about this kind of revolution to Rebellious Princess Nalia in an attempt to curb her idealism about revolutions towards the noble class of Amn.
Red Dead Redemption: About midways through the game, John Marston, the Player Character, travels to the unruly Northern Mexico, and soon realizes that he must help the ambitious Rebel Leader Abraham Reyes and his army with overthrowing the dictatorial local government in order to further his own goals. In the epilogue, Reyes moves on to attack Mexico City and manages to overthrow the president, after which he becomes a tyrant and doesn't change Mexico for the better in the slightest, which really is not that surprising, considering that he was already an egomaniac obsessed with personal glory when John met him.
This seems to be the central conflict of Fable III. Your brother, the King, rules with an iron fist and taxes his subjects brutally. Then you overthrow him... and find out the reason he was throttling the country was because an Eldritch Abomination is making its way towards Albion, and he needs the treasury fully stacked to make sure the army is well-prepared for its arrival. This gives you the option of either going back to his style of government (the "Evil" option) or instituting reforms for the subjects that will empty the treasury and divert money from the army, resulting in lots of death when Mr. Nasty shows up (the "Good" option). Needless to say, many players Take a Third Option and grind professions and/or invest heavily in real estate to fill the treasury themselves.
Two of the endings in the original Alter A.I.L.A. follow this pattern. In the Rebellion ending, White becomes President and quickly proves to be just as evil as Kugar ever was. In the Independent ending, Gold averts the trope during his government, but is assassinated shortly afterwards and replaced by yet another dictator. Meanwhile, the Imperialist ending is more a case of Meet the New Boss, as Red pulls a Starscream and overthrows Lian for the hot seat, but that's no revolution at all.
In the Ghaldring ending of Geneforge V, after killing the Shaper Council the drakons become as bad as the Shapers ever were, oppressing the human and creation rebels who fought the Shapers beside them and forbidding them from learning Shaping. Greta (who had seen this coming in the last act of the fourth game) and the main character lead another rebellion against the ascendant drakons in the epilogue to finally establish some peace and equality.
The Capricorn galaxy of Imperium Nova has a reputation for these. Most often the new emperor starts a new era of peace, then some of the other houses get bored and one of the major houses starts conquering planets, either rousing the others from their stupor or allowing them to take over.
The Arc Words, and a major theme, of Look to the West: "At the end of the day, 'revolution' also means 'to go round in circles'."
Megatron is usually this in Transformers, most explicitly in Transformers Prime. He starts out a revolutionary fighting the unjust, corrupt, tyrannical Autobot establishment with a goal of making a better society, and a combination of the issues he raises, the idealists he inspires, and the killing of the unjust rulers at his hands actually succeeds in causing reform for the better in the Autobots... but by then, he's gone mad with power and wants control instead of change, and ends up even worse than the corrupt regime he started out fighting - a regime which is now exactly where he was originally, in the position of "underdogs with the moral high ground".
In one episode of Duckman, Duckman accidently overthrows the despotical regime of a Cuba analogue that he won a vacation to by scalding himself with searing hot coffee, and after becoming the new El Presidente, proceeds to succumb to power corruption and greed, something that is lampshaded by Cornfed several times before it actually happens. In the end, he is overthrown by a rebellion that intends to recoup the state defecit Duckman racked up by holding his execution on an extravagant pay per view.
Implied and Played for Laughs in an episode of Wakfu. The heroes have successfully deposed a tyrannical governor who ruled a city with an iron fist. At the end of the episode, after the heroes have left, the new ruler claims that the time of despair is over, and that the time of happiness has come. By which she means that the city's guards now wear slightly different uniforms, and that Happiness Is Mandatory.
This became a moot point in Legend of Korra, where the Equalists seek to overthrow and eliminate every bad bender who oppressed and wronged them. Firebenders killed Hiroshi Sato's wife, the bending triads extort non-benders, the White Falls Wolfbats openly cheated during a Probending match, and to top it all off, Councilman Tarrlok betrayed Republic City's freedom by imposing a curfew on non-benders, and launched a False Flag Operation that would lure out all the non-benders out just so he could arrest them with extreme prejudice and label them all as Equalists. Once the Equalists, take over, they're just as worse as every bender who wronged them.
Truth in Television: Sadly, the modern history of several countries, especially unstable African countries, can be defined as "Same problems, new leadership". The Last King of Scotland is a notable example, with the movie beginning with Obote being replaced by Idi Amin, who of course falls himself in the end, after being even worse. Obote then took power again, and ended up killing more of his own people than Amin did.
The Real Life English "Revolution" following the execution of Charles I had a bit of this going on. Most of the radical actions taken by the top figures such as Oliver Cromwell were a result of religious conviction, not a desire for societal change. Cromwell himself caught plenty of stick for not wishing to execute the King before the Second Civil War changed his mind. Following the execution, various radical schemes offered by true reformers were tried, but eventually, as more and more people were brought back into the government structure, they began to drift back to pre-war forms, even offering the crown to Cromwell. And the circle did indeed became completely full as Cromwell with force dissolved the Rump Parliament, essentially the same kind of act as Charles I had performed and thereby caused the rebellion against him in the first place. In the end, they had returned to a monarchy in all but name, with Cromwell as Lord Protector, assisted by successive toothless legislatures. And after his son Richard succeeded him, this seemed to effectively start another dynasty, so they decided to stick with the old one and restored the Stuarts to the throne.
The European Revolutions of 1848 were like this. Pretty much every European country had a pro-democratic revolution, but things only really changed for the better in two small nations: Denmark and the Netherlands — and, most notablely, the change in both cases came about without any bloodshed. In the former, the king willingly agreed to give up his supreme privileges after a peaceful demonstration, and the latter didn't have a revolution, really, so much as a new constitution further circumscribing the power of the already ceremonial monarchy. Democracy didn't really take hold in wider parts of Europe until later in the 19th century, did not become the majority until well into the twentieth century (specifically after World War One and especially World War II), and genuine European federalism (i.e., the European Union) is younger still.
Averted also in England some sixteen years earlier, though it was a near-miss; a series of riots were threatening to escalate into organised revolt, and the King saw the writing on the wall and leaned on Parliament to offer some sort of compromise. The result was The Reform Act of 1832, sometimes known as the Great Reform Act even though a better description would be the Better-Than-Nothing Reform Act.
The Philippines suffered from this after the U.S. helped them overthrow Spain, which had colonized them a few hundred years before. They then had to endure being a colony of the U.S., along with enduring a bloody rebellion against U.S. occupation that dragged on for 11 years, and was pretty much the Afghanistan war of the early 1900's. In fairness to the Americans, they ruled with a much lighter hand than the Spanish had, and over the course of 20-30 years the US gave the Philippines a large measure of representative government and in 1935 implemented a plan to ease the Philippines into independence over the course of ten years. Then Japan invaded and things got much worse.
This trope even exists in healthy democracies, where the ballot is meant to stand in place of the bullet. Many times, an immensely unpopular government has been swept out by an opposition whose rhetoric plays into a mass popular desire for genuine reform, only for the former opposition, once empowered, to maintain their predecessors' policies without substantial change.
Some conspiracy theorists claim that this is the result of secret societies maintaining the façade of free elections while making sure that the status quo is preserved. For example, in the US, it's claimed that the two-party system and the Electoral College are two such mechanisms of control.
The same thing happened in Mexico after the supposedly liberal Porfirio Díaz took power. The old aristocracy was simply replaced with an even more brutal plutocracy, and while the cities became modern, small towns were squeezed out of existence and their former denizens became de facto serfs living with inescapable debt in haciendas (they were even called peons, though that term existed before Díaz).
Ancient China actually had a name for this trope: the "Dynastic Cycle." Essentially, it was the idea that an empire would rule until it became disapproved of by the gods, who would show their disapproval by some cosmic event (say, a lunar eclipse or a nasty series of natural disasters and famines). Following this, the people would rise and a new empire would begin, and the whole thing would happen all over again.
There is a proverb in Chinese, roughly translated as Only a madman celebrates the accession of a new dynasty, implying that nothing will change and it will be oppression as usual.
It all makes sense if you believe in "intercalendary" dynasties.
There were also other signs of "losing the Mandate of Heaven" that are suspiciously indicative of bad governing. Starvation (from poor irrigation policy), foreign invasions (from poor diplomatic policy), and even peasant revolts were all grounds for overthrowing the dynasty... if you pull it off. Which, in turn, is a clear sign that you possess the Mandate of Heaven!
Nineteenth century France arguably went through this... more than once. The French Revolution establishes a republic that degenerated into a Reign of Terror before becoming a republican imperial monarchy. After Napoleon Bonaparte is finally defeated for good, Louis XVI's brother, Louis XVIII, becomes king and brings with him a more constitutional government than what existed before the Revolution. However, he's succeeded by his reactionary brother, Charles X, leading to another (but much less violent) revolution that brings in King Louis-Philippe, whose government is something of a monarchy-republic hybrid. He became more reactionary over time, leading to yet another revolt, which brought in the Second Republic of France, although that soon ended when Napoleon's nephew was elected President and quickly set about making himself Emperor Napoleon III. Already long story short, it wasn't until 1870 that France got a government, the Third Republic, that broke the cycle by simply lasting (it was eventually toppled by the Nazis in WWII).
The 2011-2013 Egyptian revolution has spun around a few times, and may be approaching the ultimate example of this, with three examples as of this writing. Starting with a military dominated, corrupt dictatorship led by Hosni Mubarak. Protests erupt in 2011, leading the military to get rid of Mubarak, and to promise to transition to a more democratic government. Over the next couple of years:
Transition starts to take place, with a parliament elected late 2011 and president elected late 2012, however, at the same time as the election, parliament gets dissolved and the military gives itself most important legal powers.
The president (Morsi, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood) fires a bunch of military leaders, but also gives himself a large number of powers. Also starts working on a new constitution, which appears to give his own group too much power.
In 2013, in one of the purest examples of this trope in action, protests lead to the military overthrowing Morsi, arresting numerous Muslim Brotherhood leaders, violently (with hundreds of deaths) attacking protests, and other repressive measures, essentially bringing back roughly the same system that the country had started with in 2011.
During one of the (future) Decembrist gatherings, a Genre Savvy guy once asked how they can be sure one of them won't become a dictator after the revolution. The person asked really hurried to change the subject...