From Rome To WashingtonSteven Lieberman
My dear reader, I normally keep these blog posts to a fairly short, digestible length. Unfortunately, today I have to violate that principle.
This is a long one.
So grab a cup of coffee, read through, and ruminate. It is not a particularly pleasant subject, but it is one that I feel needs to be understood.
Many of us believe that the continuation of our Republic is a foregone conclusion. After all, as George Washington noted, we evolved through Divine Providence. The beatification of the U.S. notwithstanding, the soil of America is obviously going to prevail through the ages. The polity that rests upon it… well, that is another story.
History does not, as many argue, repeat itself. It does, however, behave in a fairly predictable, circular fashion. While the script does not yet exist for the future, the past does offer guides as to how the future will play out. There is one constant to the equation… and that is human nature. While social norms and fashionable philosophies morph and manifest over time, the underlying human nature that animates civilization does not. Many would suggest that this base human nature is inherently flawed and barbaric, a Hobbesian construct that relegates humans to essentially bipedal animals. That idea is, itself, flawed. Without discussing the relativism of “good” versus “evil”… human nature has at its foundational level a desire to survive and propagate. Some civilizations, such as ours, have maximized that reality, others throughout history have not.
But we have not reached the singularity yet. Absent that (or perhaps the manifestation of the Deity), we, as a species, still lurch through time seeking the optimal arrangement for self-preservation.
So with that introduction, let’s go back in time a bit and look at another Republic that had many similarities to our own.
When many people think of the Roman Empire, they are actually thinking of a specific time period in the long story arc of Rome. Prior to the Empire, there was the Republic, and prior to that there was the Kingdom. The important part for our study is going to be the transitional time between the Republic and the Empire, and what those lessons potentially have for our own Republic going forward.
The Kingdom of Rome was just that, a kingdom. Roman mythology explains its existence through the allegory of Romulus and Remus. The legend claims that Romulus and Remus (twin brothers) were abandoned on the banks of the Tiber River under the orders of King Nimitor. He saw the two brothers as potential threats to his rule. The god Tiberinus (Father of the River) was annoyed by this and sent a she-wolf to suckle the two infants. They survived and would grow up as close brothers and, ultimately, create the city of Rome. During the planning stage they disagreed on certain specifics, an argument that eventually led to the death of Remus. With Romulus being the survivor, the city of Rome was ultimately named after him.
A lineage of kings would descend from Romulus and would rule the city-state for roughly 250 years. We mark the dates as 753 BCE to 509 BCE.
In 509 BCE (much like in 1776 CE), the Romans rebelled against their king. Actually, the Roman nobility rebelled against its king. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was the king of Rome and decided to go off and fight a war as kings are often wont to do. His son, Sextus Tarquninius, got a little “randy” and decided to rape a noblewoman named Lucretia. She later took her own life, but not before naming Sextus as her rapist. This was more than the noblemen could tolerate, and they decided to abandon the whole monarchy experiment completely.
(If you have arrived here from our newsletter, continue reading here…)
Thus, in 509 BCE, after the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, we have the establishment of the Roman Republic. This neo-republic fashioned on the idea that power ultimately resided in those who were governed, and was based on classical Greek philosophical traditions that thrived within southern Europe. The Republic grew territorially, both through diplomacy as well as conquest, and became a largely heterogeneous society (much like America is now.)
Then in 27 BCE (400ish years after its founding), factionalism began to tear it apart. It had become weakened, corrupted, decadent, and political intrigue threatened its continued existence… Enter Julius Caesar, and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Caesar, himself, was not around long enough to truly set the groundwork for what would ultimately become the most powerful political organization on the planet. That work was left for his adopted son, Gaius Octavius, who would rebrand himself as Caesar Augustus upon solidifying his rule.
The Roman Empire was now a dictatorship. Ruled by strong men (and yes… at least one woman) and sometimes weak ones, the Roman Empire would spread Pax Romana across Europe, Asia, and North Africa for about 300 years. This relative peace was a direct result of two things: (1) a desire to be in Rome’s good graces for the economic benefit of local people, and (2) the extreme military superiority of Rome, essentially keeping international competitors at bay.
The Roman Empire was not an example of classical liberalism “winning the day”. Quite the contrary… it was an example of how centralized power wielded properly and, at times, ruthlessly, can maintain social order and allow for economic development. The Roman Empire did not exist because it was animated by a deep underlying philosophical principle. It existed for the singular purpose of coalition of power. Those who were members of the Roman Empire supported it because it provided immense wealth to them personally or, alternatively, because resistance to the empire came with consequences.
It took the crucifixion of Jesus to ultimately bring down the whole enterprise. We will save that for a different blog.
So… with that primer, let’s fast forward to 2021.
But before we do, let’s pause for a moment in 1804 France. Just as Julius Caesar saw the crumbling Roman Republic, so did Napoleon Bonaparte see a disintegrating Directory in France. From those ashes came the French Empire… and a dictatorship. Napoleon, however, did not have an Augustus to keep the action going after he was deposed.
Adolf Hitler ran into the same issues as well… following an eerily similar pattern.
Many on the Left consider the U.S. to be an “empire”. I completely disagree with that assessment. But, I suspect we may soon become one.
You see, I believe that the United States resembles the Roman Republic at the end of its cycle. A fall of our Republic sets the stage for potential Imperial America.
What is going to be interesting is the animating principles of that forthcoming “Empire”.
I don’t believe (sadly) that it is likely to be one of ideology.
Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations? in 1993 as an article in Foreign Affairs as a response to one of my favorite philosophers and, incidentally, Professor Huntington’s student, Francis Fukuyama. Francis Fukuyama had just written The End of History and the Last Man. A Hegelian argument that “history” as it had been known throughout…well… history, had ceased with the fall of communism. With capitalism reigning supreme, along with classical liberalism, there would be no more fundamental post-Cold War Conflict.
Well… he was clearly wrong there, now wasn’t he?
Professor Huntington saw the problem, and wrote Clash. In it (and later developed into a full thesis) Huntington argues that the animating economic and political philosophies that came into fashion from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were, in fact, international historical anomalies.
With the end of the Cold War, the international order would revert back to the way it had always been…
Professor Huntington seems to have had some degree of clairvoyance. From the realignment of Europe, to the manifestation of regional hegemony by the Chinese, to the Islamic identity movements of the Arab Spring, to the hyper-factionalism within the United States… tribalism is on the rise. With it comes fundamental disruption to both globalism, as well as the concept of the nation-state, somewhat paradoxically at the same time.
So what happens to “America” as we know it?
Part of that question turns on what transpires over the next ten years. America lurched towards neo-nationalism during the Trump administration. At least this was the message that the administration put forward to the American people. It was not exactly correct. America maintained a robust foreign policy, if not a somewhat disjointed one. The larger issue became a failure to articulate what America actually was. Essentially, Trump was adopting the codes of the Empire without first becoming an empire. That is problematic and ends up speaking a language that becomes garbled, and creates policies that have no predictive backstory. As such, most nations simply stayed on the sidelines waiting for either a new administration or a more detailed strategy to became codified.
Post-Trump, we have seen the development of true authoritarianism in the United States. The irony is that the current administration and its supporters saw Trump as an authoritarian…which he arguably was… but did not have the structural ability to apply authoritarianism. The current administration does not have such constraints or apparent concerns.
As we see the power of Congress evaporating, and the courts being threatened with marginalization, things are becoming more and more centralized in the Executive Branch. The powers that be are fully embracing what could only be best described as a post-Constitutional Republic. The problem with that is the attendant unpredictable political intrigue that goes with it. In essence… we are becoming more and more like Rome, France, and Germany, before their respective Republics collapsed.
One thing that Rome did have that was significantly different to France and Germany though, was a heterogenous society. People in Rome at the time of the Republic hailed from places that were decidedly un-Roman. The United States has a similar demographic. We have pulled from the far corners of the globe, and yet we have not inculcated our population to believe we are Americans. In fact, we have gone to great lengths to establish sub-identities that are in direct opposition to a collective American identity. This cultural factionalism has made many people rich, while at the same time created mistrust, misunderstandings and, in some cases, open conflict between citizens.
While for most of our history there has been a natural tension between the urban and rural populations, we now see people identifying first by race, then by religion, then by gender, then by sexual orientation. This sub-tribalism will not stop here. We will see more of it, as individuals seek to profit off of division, and the government seeks to co-opt these movements for their own political gain.
With the Republic having lost its moorings on adherence to Constitutional principles, the Republic must find some sort of justification for its existence. An empire has no mandate to do this; a Republic, however, must show a raison d’etre.
Enter Napoleon (or Caesar, or Dwayne the “Rock” Johnson), or whomever it “is”, is somewhat irrelevant. Our Republic will fall not by internal strife. It will fall when that strife is put down by, very likely, a popular dictator who will unite our nation and expand our influence beyond our borders… most likely through violence.
If history is a guide, his or her reign will be temporary, and then we can only hope for an “Augustus” to come along behind him. Inevitably, we will have few Neros as well.
Is this transformative Republic-to-Empire shift inevitable? Not necessarily. As I said in the beginning, history is not a roadmap to the future. I am not a Calvinist, to be sure. To fend off the fall of the Republic, we need to do two things and we need to do them immediately.
First, we need to abandon factionalism. Second, we need to have almost a religious faith and fealty to the Constitution.
Factionalism has been a fluid concept. Marxism has become somewhat anachronistic. Even socialism has become a dismissive construct finding traction in the very young and the very old. Along with that, capitalism has become so rare an artifice that economic structural systems have lost true value in crafting tribalism. Instead, we have turned to the more visibly apparent as a means of seeking identity. Race and gender, and to a lesser extent religion, now divide us more than an economic-index status or region.
The Constitution has a solution for this: equal protection. While the Declaration of Independence came first in chronological order, the Declaration actually perfects the Constitution, most succinctly in the codification of equal protection. Dr. King famously stated we should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. This was essentially a rephrase of an embedded Constitutional principle. The laws must apply equally to all. This has both positive as well as negative aspects. A law that targets a minority for prosecution fails any level of Constitutional scrutiny. A law that gives stuff to minorities also fails any level of Constitutional scrutiny. Members of the State who single out an individual based on race, religion, national origin, or gender… well… they do so at their own peril since they are now operating outside the scope of their animating document and, thus, subject to civil, as well as criminal, penalties.
This is how it is supposed to work. In practice it has become anything but. Our Constitution has been so grossly degraded that the Bill of Rights has become a mere annoyance to the State as opposed to a limitation of government authority.
As mentioned above, the Declaration must be looked at in conjunction with the Constitution. It is the only way that the animating document has any philosophical underpinning. Absent the Declaration, the Constitution is simply a set of governmental operating instructions.
There are two fundamentally important parts to the Declaration. The first is the fact that it exists at all. The Framers felt it was necessary to memorialize their actions for future generations and give justification for their insurrection against the Crown. The second is located in that incredibly eloquent phrase: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, amongst these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is the animating principle of America. Unlike the Roman Republic, and definitely unlike the Roman Empire, it answers the question of why?
America exists… or rather the government of America exists… to secure the rights of The People, not to make them rich, not to make them dominant, certainly not to pick winners and losers. It exists to ensure their rights are not trodden on by any other government, including itself.
Failure to burn these principles into our national DNA ensures our future transition from a Republic to an Empire.
When that happens, the factional problems we see today will indeed go away. The State will not tolerate any dissension, nor will it accept any suspicion that it is not capable of providing internal harmony for its people. Unhampered by a pesky Constitution, political extremists from all sides will be quickly and efficiently removed from the theater.
Globally, not just in the United States, the future looks decidedly bleak. It is time to ensure that our experiment in popular government does not perish from this earth.