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The Decline and Fall of the American Republic

But the Roman Republic is the more relevant model. Old republics like Rome differ from young ones like Weimar Germany because their citizens have learned to value the freedom, political norms, and constitutional checks that defend against a rapid descent into autocracy. Romans were taught to expect annual elections, respect the choices voters made, and accept that elected officials would represent the interests of all Romans.

Perhaps most importantly, they believed politics to be a peaceful process that required representatives to compromise with each and build broad consensuses around difficult policies. The most significant danger old republics like ours face is not the sudden assault of an aspiring autocrat but the slow erosion of their cultural and institutional defenses.


  • Where is Jazz?/ ¿Dónde está Jazz?.
  • Crossing the Bar;
  • The many declines and falls of the American Empire.

In Rome, this degeneration began gradually and almost imperceptibly in the middle of the second century BC. As in the US now, mid-second century Rome confronted the emergence of a huge gap between its wealthiest citizens and everyone else. For more than a generation, Roman politicians tried to address the resentments that this growing inequality had created by proposing voting reforms and crafting schemes to distribute public resources to poor Romans.

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But most of their proposals were blocked. As with similar laws proposed in the late s, Tiberius failed to build the necessary consensus to pass his proposal. Undeterred, Tiberius mobilized crowds of threatening supporters and successfully removed a magistrate from office who had threatened to veto the law—the first time in Roman history such a thing had happened.

Tiberius then paid for the reform with funds traditionally controlled by his opponents in the senate.

This broke another long-standing Roman political norm. This was the first act of political violence in Rome in more than years. Calm soon returned to Rome, but the lessons of BC could not be unlearned.

Norm breaking, violence, and even assassination had proven useful political tactics. Ambitious Romans began to adopt them with greater regularity and more sophistication.

Catalog Record: Decline and fall of the American republic | HathiTrust Digital Library

Despite the growing political dysfunction that pushed Rome into a civil war in the 80s BC and another that lasted from BC, Romans still believed that their Republic survived. Some Romans, like Brutus the younger, imagined the Republic could be restored even after Julius Caesar had himself named perpetual dictator in 44 BC. These battles finally revealed to Romans what objective observers could already see. Romans had allowed their Republic to die. The ancient Roman story offers a chilling lesson to modern Americans.

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The story is familiar. Americans began the Revolution by citing and exaggerating the executive tyranny of the British king, but by the time of the Constitutional Convention their experience with state legislatures had convinced them that it was legislative tyranny that posed the major threat. The Founders thus created elaborate checks and balances constraining the national legislature, but they left the executive office ambiguous, in this way papering over disagreement about the proper scope of executive power.

A group of strong executives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln—set the foundation for the imperial presidency of the twentieth; but for most of the nineteenth century the presidency was not a powerful office. Congress played the central role in the national government, and the state governments remained, in most domains, the primary loci of political power. Read more at The New Republic.

WHAT WOULD PLATO THINK OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC TODAY?