A Republic of you can keep it, Part II

In a previous post, I touched on the topic of the instability of democracy. Democracy is an unstable political machine. It requires frequent maintenance and its gears wear out quickly. In America, the gears of the machine (i.e. politicians) must be replaced at two, four, and six year intervals, depending the particular gear being replaced. It is a machine that does not follow a set blueprint, but is in a constant state of flux so that known-good configurations are tossed out for the sake of change. This is the weakness of liberal machinations. While they may run for years, like the American Experiment (as it was called by Benjamin Franklin) has, but it could just as easily fail in a couple generations, like the Soviet Union did. The main problem being the notion of majority rule. If a generation rises, that for whatever reason, wants to radically overhaul the machinery, even if it is working, it is free to do so if it can garner enough votes.

It is interesting to me that a satirist from the late 19th century, Ambrose Bierce, envisioned in his stories a future where democratic systems as we know them did not exist. They had failed and long been replaced with monarchic institutions. In Ashes of the Beacon, An Historical Monograph Written in 4930, Bierce wrote:

“The habit of obedience to written law, inculcated by generations of respect for actual government able to enforce its authority, will persist for a long time, with an ever lessening power upon the imagination of the people; but there comes a time when the tradition is forgotten and the delusion exhausted. When men perceive that nothing is restraining them but their consent to be restrained, then at last there is nothing to obstruct the free play of that selfishness which is the dominant characteristic and fundamental motive of human nature and human action respectively.”

“Of the American form of government, although itself the greatest of evils afflicting the victims of those it entailed, but little needs to be said here; it has perished from the earth, a system discredited by an unbroken record of failure in all parts of the world, from the earliest historic times to its final extinction. Of living students of political history not one professes to see in  it anything by a mischievous creation of theorists and visionaries – persons whom our gracious sovereign has deigned to brand for the world’s contempt as “dupes of hope purveying to sons of greed.” The political philosopher of to-day is spared the trouble of pointing out the fallacies of republican government, as the mathematician is spared that of demonstrating the absurdity of the convergence of parallel lines; yet the ancient Americans not only clung to their error with a blind, unquestioning faith, even when groaning under its most insupportable burdens, but seem to have believed it of divine origin.”

Of course this is a fictional work set  a couple millennia in the future, but Bierce’s view of the failures of liberal institutions, which in America pass as conservative [1] appear to have some validity in the current state of affairs. The notion, however, that Bierce expresses in his work was not new, even in his time. Benjamin Franklin expressed his own reservations at time the Constitution was written.
It is also interesting to note how quickly the Roman Republic fell. Rome did not grant universal suffrage to all it’s citizens[2], but it did conduct its affairs “democratically”. This came to an abrupt end with the ascension of Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Divi Filius Augustus as Emperor of Rome. A BBC article documents the fall of the Republic, tracing its demise to the rise of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 B.C.. The Republic had stood since 509 B.C when Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown, and remained stable as long as the politicians kept power separated and followed the established checks and balances. As with all republics, this was a precarious balancing act, which was knocked off kilter when Gracchus brought the matter before Plebeian Council (the assembly of the Commons) and circumvented the Senate (the Aristocracy) in a bid to take parcels of state-owned lands being occupied by the rich and redistribute them to the poor. By bringing the vote directly to the masses, Graccus uncorked the genie that shook the tenuous foundations of the Republic. This led to chaos, the dictatorships of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar, and ultimately the declaration of establishment of Octavian as Emperor in 27 B.C.. 
So an Republic that had lasted ±400 years prior to Gracchus fell in a little over one hundred years following his actions. If history is to be a guide, The United States of America would apear to be on track for its collapse into a dictatorship in the near future. Looking at America’s timeline, the Republic was born in 1776. It did not face a civil war until the 1860s, and faced its next major civil (rights) disturbance approximately one hundred years later. The current progression toward socialism and redistribution is taking place about fifty years after that. The timeline seems to be nearly halved that of the Roman Republic, so if President Obama is our Gracchus, then we should expect our Octavian in the next twenty to forty years. That would however, give us our Sulla at the end of President Obama’s term. 
Is that a bad thing? It’s not for me to say. The average well-to-do Roman probably stayed fairly well-to-do under both the Republic and the Empire, but we have other governments to pull experience from where that was not the outcome. Wealthy, or even financially comfortable Russians probably noticed quite a difference in their lives following the October Revolution. They were coming out of a monarchy into a “democratic” form of government. That government collapsed in the 1990s into Russia’s current government, which currently has its own Caesar-esque figure in Vladimir Putin[3]. 
Each scenario is different, but to ignore history is to ignore an opportunity to affect, or if nothing else, plan for one’s own outcome.

[1] American conservatism is built on the notion of conserving the institutions established by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution. One must remember, however, that these concepts were very liberal in their time with their opposition to the ancien régime of Great Britain.
[2] Most of the inhabitants of the Roman Republic were not Roman citizens, and there were different classes of citizenship. There were:
  • Cives Romani – full Roman citizens divided into
    • non optimo jure with rights of jus commercii (property) and jus connubii (marriage)
    • optimo jure, those rights plus jus suffragiorum (vote) and jus honorum (hold office)
  • Latini – not full citizens but held the Latin Rights of jus commercii and jus migrationis (move within the Republic), but not jus connubii
  • Socii/Foederati – citizens of states with treaty obligations to Rome. Certain legal rights were exchanged for military service.
  • Provinciales – fell under Roman control or influence but weren’t even socii. The only appreciable right they had was jus gentium (natural law, that which is common to all people)
[3] A study of Vladimir Putin would be an interesting one in and of itself. Loved by many in his country, hated by others, and an enigma to the West, Putin has the makings of a Tsar-in-waiting. Not having a male heir, though, there’s not much to work with in the realm of dynasty building.

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