Thursday, June 13, 2013

Emperor in the US

Question: Do you think that a Roman-like emperor could ever take over the United States?

It does seem that republics have a limited lifespan.  After the Roman Republic, there were several Italian city-states that existed as republics (Florence, Pisa, Verona, etc.), but none of them lasted forever.  In the past 200 years, we have seen nations in all the continents start to shift towards some sort of representative democracy.  People today, particularly in the West, tend to see this as a natural progression, and that some sort of representative democracy will be the dominant political mode of the future.  The problem with this assessment is that none of these republics has lasted very long so far.  Regardless of what date you give to the founding of the republic (the signing of the Articles of Confederation?  The Declaration of Independence?  The Constitution?), we can safely say that United States is less than 250 years old.  This is roughly half the age that the Roman Republic was when it started to be replaced by the Roman Empire.  It is possible that one day in the future people will look back at this era as representing a failed experiment carried out by nations around the world.

This raises a question, What might happen to bring about the end of the American Republic?  Many writers and political philosophers have looked for parallels between the United States and the Roman Republic, and there are hundreds of different opinions about what elements in our country resemble those that led to the beginning of the Roman Empire.  It is hard to pinpoint a single cause for the end of the Roman Republic because there was so much going on, but the following are contributing factors:

  • The Republic depended on constant military expansion to acquire land,
  • Rome conquered many regions where Roman power was resented,
  • Roman citizens, particularly in the city of Rome itself, resented giving any amount of control to conquered people and immigrants,
  • There was a strain on the food supply that was caused by many different factors, including drought and farming practices that depleted the soil,
  • The strain between the classes, which had always been a feature of the Republic, became increasingly dangerous after the Marian Reforms, because military service was expanded to include people who did not have any property.  This opened the door for people who saw the military as an opportunity to gain property, which was typically given out by the generals after successful campaigns.  These new soldiers tended to see their generals themselves as their benefactors; they became more loyal to their military leaders than to the state of Rome.  This is what allowed Sulla to march against Rome, and was an essential element in the rise of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
In the end, it seems the deciding factor is that people stopped being loyal to Rome, but instead focused on their families, classes, centuries, generals, and so on.  In other words, Rome became factionalized.  Whenever there was a need for austerity, everybody thought it was somebody else's job to be make the sacrifices.  In the early days of our republic, people were very aware that the Roman Republic had failed, and many people thought this was reason enough not to try such a radical form of representative democracy.  In response, the founders of our republic decided that they would mitigate the threat of factions by making political parties illegal, thinking that this would prevent one type of factionalism that was already problematic in the English Parliament.  The Federalist Papers, many of which you will read in ninth grade, make the argument that having divided loyalties will naturally lead to the downfall of the republic; these essays argue for a strong central government which will counterbalance the tendency towards loyalty to factions based on party, state, class, region, etc.  The Federalist Papers hold that there is always a sense in which people must give up some of their self-interest in service of the state, and that the unwillingness to do so will lead to the end of the republic.  

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville makes a similar argument.  While he realizes that political parties are a "necessary evil" (a phrase he actually uses), Tocqueville argues that "great political parties" are those that "cling to principles," while more destructive political parties "display the selfishness of their characters in their actions."  About 30 years after Tocqueville wrote, the country did become divided, the southern faction warring against the northern.  As the country underwent change and turmoil, people allowed regional loyalties to overtake their commitment to the commonwealth.  

I think the danger of factionalism is also demonstrated by the political activity the seventh graders did in the last quarter of ancient history class.  7C was much more successful at forming a government, mostly because the students were dedicated to the idea of making it work.  In 7A, the students were so worried about people watching out for their own friends that very few were really willing to commit to the activity.  For an undertaking like that to work, the participants must have some amount of belief in the "rightness" of the activity.  Without that, the only way to assure participation is to find some way to force students to take part, which is very hard to do, and it would not teach the appropriate lesson.

The worry that I have about the US is that people have widely differing ideas about the purpose of a nation.  People on the Libertarian end of the spectrum see the role limited largely to national defense, while more socially-minded people think that the government should have a role in providing health care, a social safety net, cultural enrichment, and so on.  I don't want to get into an argument about whose view is "right."  I think either approach has its advantages and disadvantages.  I also tend to think that people have different dispositions, and many of their beliefs about the proper role of government arises from this.  Arguing about what form of government the Founding Fathers wanted seems to miss the point; what we really need to do is to talk openly about what sort of government we want, since we are the people using.

What I am worried about is that people get so caught up in their own vision of how the country should work is that they give up on the notion of service and self-sacrifice that makes it work.  Although some people, such as Ayn Rand, believe that the best economic and political systems are based on self-interest, I don't see that history supports this.  The times when our country worked best were times when people surrendered some of their self-interest for a common goal.  While I fear collectivism and see the danger of blind patriotism (look at North Korea), I don't know of any country that thrived without some sense of unity among its people.  I think we are at a crisis now because we are divided about who we are and what the our purposes should be.  It is possible that war could give us that sense, but I wish that we could focus on a more humane purpose than killing other people.  

Another factor that seems to point to the possibility of an emperor is economic inequality.  Americans love the rich, largely because so many believe that one day they will be rich, too.  This becomes clear when people are debating things like the estate tax, which affects only quite wealthy people.  Americans tend to think that, although they wouldn't have to pay it if they died now, by the time they actually get around to dying they probably will be that rich.  I do think, though, that this attitude could change.  Think of all the talk of the "1%" in the most recent presidential election.  If people start to think of themselves as somehow permanently disenfranchised, somebody akin to the Gracchus brothers might seize the opportunity to shake up the established order.

That being said, I doubt that a single emperor will ever rule over the entire US.  I think that the country would fracture first, and that various sorts of rulers would arise in various regions.  The only reason the Roman people supported the emperors is that they thought it was in their own best interest to do so; most Romans were better off under the Roman Empire.  I doubt one person could convince enough people that the whole nation would turn over control to him/her.  

Let me know what you think by posting a comment.  

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