The Failure of the American Republic

Humans are very poor learners. For whatever reason, humans tend to forget recent history, as a way to avoid painful facts. It might be adaptive to the species, and a way for humans to avoid pain to the self. This is why we are not very good with things like climate change, or for that matter absorbing the lessons of history. Why we have a denial cottage industry that has taken on a life of its own. What all this proves is that we are very good at creating stories that we prefer. Stories that tell is how great we are. Stories that speak of the future with far more hope than we should have. Stories that are myths in many cases. Most of these avoid facts that may prove our stories non-truths, or at best, semi-truths. This is why we face several crisis that are connected. One is the failure of the Republic and self government, which may prove essential to move beyond climate change and crony capitalism.

Nations behave in ways that are specific to their culture. American society is willfully ignorant, and proud of it, and prefers to think it is unique, with no precedent. This is American exceptionalism that we are all familiar with. It was a tool for continental expansion, but it is turning into a liability. Why? It prevents us from examining ourselves in an objective way. It makes self rule difficult, since wise decision making requires all information and careful assessment of facts. This is ironic on its face, since the American Republic is patterned the Roman Republic, the same republic that started to fail under Julius Caesar. In some ways, we see similar patterns to that moment of failure in the modern United States.

It is important to understand the parallels hi history, because the fRepublic is in peril we need to correct course. We are at a crisis point. One that is clear if you know what you are looking for. It is not that clear if you are not, There is deep malaise in the country, because the deimos, the people know something is wrong. This is one reason for the populist moment we find ourselves in, when a president has promised to fix all, and has told us he needs nobody else. This is not unlike Caesar, and his promises when confronting the Senate of his day. Both rail against corrupt institutions that need fixing. Of course, both President Donald Trump and Caesar, we are told, are particularly well qualified to solve the crisis,. For Rome it meant the end of the Republic.

Incidentally, this is why the president is also using threats of violence if the House goes to the Democrats in six weeks or so. He is using the threat to delegitimize the election process. He is attacking the Constitution by his actions. And no, Trump, or his actions, are not unprecedented in American history. He is extreme though, This makes him very dangerous.

The Republic has been in peril before. But, we are very bad remembering our own history. This is why we do not recall the last few times the Republic was in danger. These events do not just include Watergate and the follies of Richard Nixon. In fact the presidency of George W Bush, and the US Patriot Act (USPA) did the same. Some of those consequences remain, as they have been reaffirmed with National Defense Authorization Acts, among others. The attack on the twin towers on 9–11 allowed for the fast passage of legislation that placed basic civil liberties at risk. This happened within most Americans lifetimes. However, what the attack did to the country psychologically was never examined. When all was said and done we gave up our privacy, for a false sense of security.

It was during those years that the strategic use of fear first saw wide spread implementation. Rememberer the attack gradient? It was used skillfully to maintain people alarmed, and watching over their shoulders. It was especially effective in places that were less likely to see an attack. It was less effective in what would be primary targets It was a careful and measured use of human psychology. This, often spoofed chart, was on the news every day. It hardly accidental.

Image for post
Image for post

As a country, we have yet to understand how much we gave up. We also have to come to terms with the Emperor in our midst, and that would be the president. Presidential powers expanded to near imperial levels, and all that remains is removing term limits and admitting an emperor for life. The Unitary Executive is that powerful. The powers that we have given the president are such, that he can pretty much do whatever he wants. He can order Americans put in prison without proper trial, or cause. In other words, it has greatly expanded Article Two authorities, as granted by the Constitution. All of this happened in the name of national security, and while there were sunset provisions, the act is mostly still in effect. This is but one example of what the USPA does regarding your privacy when dealing with your electronics:

Title II specifically authorizes the government to use “trap and trace” devices and pen registers — which provide information about telecommunications sent and received from a given source — against any non-U.S. citizen in the United States or against any person suspected of involvement with international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. Title II also authorizes “roving surveillance,” permitting the government to intercept communications without specifying the facility or location. Instead, the government may avail itself of all the information, facilities, or technical assistance necessary to monitor a given target while protecting the secrecy of its investigation. Critics have noted that under the PATRIOT Act, authorities need not identify the target to obtain a wiretap, but can instead establish “John Doe” roving taps. The authorization of roving surveillance was designed in part as a response to new technologies such as cellular telephones, e-mail, and other means of rapid communication.

Lets be clear,. The act in its current form, since it gets reauthorized every so often, sill allows the government to collect your phone data. This is not done directly anymore. After all, now private corporations do it. I do not know whats best, the fiction that the National Security Agency collects it, over the ATT exchange boxes, or that ATT does it, but it is what it is.

The powers we gave up are extensive, and most Americans are sleep walking though history. Your phone is the equivalent of private papers in the 18th century. The Founders wrote the fourth amendment because of the abuses under King George III that violated the much older bill of rights that existed for British citizens. The King and his men refused to grant colonists the rights of their citizens, and subjected to abuse that led to a bill of rights with stronger provisions. Under the Patriot Act, and its successors a lot of those privacy protections are gone. This is yet another point of threat to the republic.

Nor is the Patriot Act unprecedented in the American experience. Most Americans idolize Abraham Lincoln for preserving the Republic during the Civil War. However, one of the things that Lincoln did was to suspend Habeas Corpus, a fundamental right under the Constitution. There were critics at the time who called him a tyrant for it. You may excuse him for it from our comfortable age, but it was an attack on the rights of citizens.

Nor was he alone in this pursuit of power. The third President, John Adams, had Congress pass the first open attack on civil liberties in 11798. The Alien and Sedition Acts was a direct offensive on the free press and civil liberties. People went to prison for publishing criticisms of the President of the United States. This was not popular and it partially led to his loss in 1800. The election of 1800 was hotly contested and it was not a direct election, nor were popular elections held in all states. That was a very different political system from ours, though a direct election of the president is not yet the case. It helps to remember that. The acts, a quasi-state of war, as well as the fear that Adams wanted to establish a monarchy were some of the issues on the ballot. He was soundly rejected.

Nor was this the only time we saw anything like those restrictive laws. President Woodrow Wilson had Congress pass the Sedition Acts which were used to silence opposition to the First World War, Like many wars before, and after it, there were opponents who were portrayed as a fifth column. Among them was Eugene Debs, who was not just a prominent socialist, but the perennial presidential candidate of his age. Wilson did not want any opposition, or at least the vocal kind. So he did order Debbs, among others, to prison for the duration of the war.

Yet, these are dangerous precedents, but nothing like two others.The first is the half a decade leading to the American Civil War. The second is far more distant in the mists of history. It is one that you likely have not heard much about. The teaching of history in school no longer includes a detailed study on the fall of the Roman Republic. Unlike the founders, who knew their Cato from their Julius Caesar, we really do not. In fact, many Americans do not know who either of these men were. For the founders this was critical, because they modeled the American Republic on the Roman one, with all virtues and foibles. It also had elements from the home country. Instead of one legislative body, like Rome had, it has two, for example. It tracks the roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The years leading to the civil war were filled with congressional inaction. They also witnessed a rising tribalism that pitted Americans against each other. The Kansas Little War was a preview of future attractions, where brother fought brother. The war that was to come started in some ways in bloody Kansas, not at Fort Sumpter. Congress itself was filled with violent speech against each other. The cause of abolition pitted the industrial north against the slave holding south, In some cases we saw actual fights, and the caning of a United States Senator. When Lincoln took over the presidency things were at a boiling point. He was not the trigger, as southern propaganda would tell their people, but the end result of over a decade of increasing tensions. .

The Roman Senate had similar problems. It was divided into factions, and could not get anything done when Caesar came to power. He knew this, and in time used those divisions to consolidate his power. It was this same Senate that assassinated him in the end, but the lot had been cast. Caesar knew that the Senate served the patricians, not the regular people, let alone slaves. Chiefly, for both legislative bodies, separated by thousands of years, compromise became near impossible. In both the Roman republic and the American republic compromise is the oil that lubes government.

Paralyzed systems are a spectacle to behold. They also reveal inherent weaknesses to a system of government. A paralyzed, or near paralyzed legislative body also tends to anger the people they serve. Why, they ask, are they incapable of doing their jobs? And in the case of the American government, they are paid a hefty sum, much higher than the average salary in the country.

This creates the opening necessary for an essential man who promises to fix it.

The next critical item is income inequality: It is present and it is as bad as it was right before the Great Depression. It did exist in the Rome of Julius Caesar. The years leading to the civil war are less clear, because the contemporaneous writings speak of early labor organizing, as well as increasing fears of the other. In particular in the industrial north where white workers did not want the expansion of slavery due to the cheap labor they could not compete against. During the civil war this led to rioting in New York City, and the burning of a black orphanage. In some ways the racial tensions of our times come from a similar economic insecurity, laced with status loss as the country becomes more diverse Fears of the other are effective in keeping the attrition away from the government.

All this creates insecurity. This ranges from housing and food insecurity, to a lack of access to basic services. People who lack these services, or the ability to save, will look for a scapegoat. This is a problem, not just in the United States. However, in the United States its leading to an increase in open racism, and the beginnings of what is starting to look like ethnic cleansing. We have been tested for that with family separation at the border. Also, denial of passports to American Citizens along the US border, This is not unprecedented in American history, but the last time it led to Japanese internment camps, and removal of Mexican Americans from the United States.

It is in this critical environment that both the Roman Senate and the United States Congress passed tax cuts benefiting the upper reaches of society. Rome knew them as the Patricians, we colloquially know them as the one percent, In reality it is an even smaller percentage of the well heeled. Incidentally, these tax cuts, in particular the inheritance tax, benefit the president greatly With tax cuts comes a severe lack of funds for essential public services and the meager safety net. The next step will be austerity cuts. Speaker Paul Ryan is already talking of gutting both Social Security and Medicare. The reasoning is that the deficit is growing out of bounds under these tax cuts, He cynically feigning surprise, never mind that he was warned of this before the bill was passed and signed by the office of Management and Budget.

This increases popular anger and insecurity. In Rome lack of food led to riots. In the United States during the Great Depression, there were a few close calls. However, an activist functioning government headed deep social conflict at the pass. Our current government is blind to the potential for social conflict that the policies could generate. They are enjoying the present state of affairs, without noticing the storm clouds forming in the distance.

Then there is the populist appeal we are seeing tapping into the anger. Trump is a right wing populist. He also perceives himself as a classic strong man, who is in this for himself and personal glory. Unlike Julius Caesar, he has no clue what the people need. So he cannot do what is essential to maintain the peace. In fact, like Caligula, he is spreading fear, and appealing to the worst parts of our natures. He is inciting violence as well, and this could end very badly.

In this sense Trump is brilliant because he is manipulating his base and using fear strategically. This is what makes him so dangerous. In time he could get his followers to act in a spasm of violence that will get people killed.

Then there is the issue of war as a means of both expansion and control. First the Cold War, and how the War on Terror, have created a budget where public spending mostly goes towards a perceived or real threat. War, all the time, changes spending and national priorities. It is no surprise that the nation that “won” the moonshot has crumbling infrastructure. It is no wonder that we have children unable to drink the water of Flint Michigan, and fixing that water system is relatively cheap. But lead in water is preferable than one less Cruise missile.

We have de-prioritized what makes society works and prioritized weapons and the military. The war on terror is also a war on a military tactic. This is not a war that can ever be won, for the enemy can shift as needs change. Anybody can become a terrorist. And under the rules set by the Patriot Act, includes American citizens. It is far more a war against East Asia, or was it West Asia? It is hard to keep the enemy of the moment clear, or to the customary two minutes of hate.

Don’t get me wrong. There are people around the world that relish in seeing the failures of the United States. However, spending as much as we do in the military means we do not invest in our youth, we do not invest in basic research, roads, bridges or healthcare. A country that does this short term will do ok. A country that does this as a multigenerational project will start to rot from within. Ironically we have seen both with the United States. This is also what brought down the Soviet Union, We won the cold war because we outspent them, but we also had a far larger economy.

Lets be clear, during World War Two we committed all possible resources to the fight. Millions served in the military. Civilian production was bare bones. After the war we switched back, and we quickly demobilized. The 1950s build a strong middle class, in spite of the Korean conflict. And even in the midst of the Cold War, we did not spend as much as we currently do in the military, by percentage of Gross National Product. Back then we spent double than we do today in basic research. College was nearly free. Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz has made this very point. He has called for an investment in the future by increasing the percentage of GDP in basic research not by ten or twenty percent, He said that a mere two percent would make a large difference in our future. He also has written that we need to invest in our youth, or we will not continue to lead in the world. Quite frankly, leadership in basic sciences is already passing from the United States to both China and Europe. That research we once did was part of a very high standard of living. And we are starting to see a brain drain from the United States, where the best and the brightest are leaving.

This is partly because these days we have completely different spending priorities. It takes little effort to see crumbling bridges. We are slowly crumbling and devolving into a third world nation, with a population on the edge of poverty, and income insecurity that could lead to a social crisis.

In the midst of this we are seeing enemies, fictional as they are, rise in our midsts. Julius Caesar saw the patricians of his day as his enemies. He made plenty of real enemies in the Senate as well. In the end they killed him. These days anybody with knowledge is seen in the same light. The president declared the press the enemy of the people. He sees any expert (that does not agree with him that is) as an enemy as well. He is also delegitimizing every political opponent he has, He is demanding prosecution of Hillary Clinton and is already saying that the November election is not legitimate if his parry should lose control of the House and this will lead to violence. These are the actions of a tyrant, not of a man of the people who believes in the Republic.

All this points towards a failure of the American republic.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store