As I have mentioned in other posts, I am making my way through Mary Beard’s remarkably readable account of Roman history, SPQR. Beard has the unique talent of bringing ancient history forward and modernizing it and making it tremendously relatable to modern times while maintaining the integrity of the critical historical elements. One of the remarkable anecdotes that Beard draws upon is the assassination of the Emperor Gaius, also commonly known as Caligula (which loosely translates into “Bootikins” on account of the footies he has as a child, making it a nickname that Gaius actually rather disliked). In the aftermath of this event, Beard chronicles how the Roman Senate took to the Temple of Jupiter, a highly revered and symbolic place for Romans of the time, and, as Beard states, “exchanged fine words about the end of political slavery and the return of liberty.” Calculating that it had been about 100 years since the end of freedom, one of them delivered a stirring speech on the need to return to Republican ideals. While admitting that he was too young to see the true Republic in its old form, he claimed to see with his own eyes ‘the evils with which tyrannies fill the state. No despot is set over you now who can get away with ruining the city…what recently nurtured the tyranny was nothing other than our inaction…Weakened by the pleasure of peace we learned to live like slaves….Our first duty now is to give the highest possible honors to those who killed the tyrant.”
Unfortunately for the speaker, one observer in the crowd noticed that he was wearing the signet ring that featured the face of Gaius on it, a symbol of sycophantic loyalty to the Emperor, and proceeded to rip the ring from his finger. The entire spectacle completely undermined the eloquent speech he had just delivered. As Beard indicates, the Jewish historian Josephus hinted in his writings at the time that, “anyone who could loudly advocate a return to Republican rule while sporting the emperor’s portrait on his ring did not understand what Republican rule was about.”
I use this as a parallel for the current state of the American polity and our lost sense of what actually makes America great. As the author of a blog post The Jacobins of the Right states, “There is something almost Jacobin – and thus deeply unconservative – about the idea that a virtuous, plain-speaking, authentic outsider can just step into politics and fix everything, and that when all is done, the nation as a whole will be regenerated. Or great again. Or something quite like it. There is something equally Jacobin, and unconservative, about the idea that our country or any other needs to be radically remade.” This is not just about the current presidential election, although it is certainly a symptom of the disease, in my mind, modern Americans have forgotten, or were never really taught, what made America great in the first place. The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence embodies the greatness of what the American Republic aspired to be:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..
What was unique about this incredible endeavor was a paradigm shift from paternalistic aristocratic government structures that predominated the globe at that time and indeed throughout the vast majority of history to one where individuals had unassailable rights and that government existed by the sole consent of the governed. While the United States founding fathers could look to examples of the Athenian democracy, Roman Republican era, and writings from classical liberal (mostly) English philosophers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume, for the most part they were building and executing on something entirely new. It would not have escaped their (or the rest of the world’s) notice that those previous rare examples from Rome and Greece were ultimately flawed and doomed to failure.
As a bulwark against those flaws and with additional wisdom provided by the troubles of the Articles of Confederation period, the U.S. Constitution weaved together a tapestry of government checks and balances across not only the legislative, executive, and judicial branches but also across the central federal government and state governments. While I could make much of this artfully wise construct of checks and balances across government institutions, suffice it to say that by its very inherent design the U.S. Constitution was purposefully constructed to make rapid and dramatic change very difficult and yield to the less efficient incremental and slow changes that are reached by overwhelming support and consensus. For anyone that doubts this, make the Federalist Papers authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay your next reading project. A less talked about but equally important nature of the American construct was combining the government checks and balances with elements of an indirect democracy as a form of population oversight of the government; or, in other words – the consent of the governed was never intended to be ‘the majority votes, the majority rules, the majority rides roughshod over the losing minority’. It is critical to note that this was not direct democracy, as the founding fathers were afraid of mob mentality, or what the French aristocrat and prescient writer Alexis de Tocqueville would coin as “the tyranny of the majority” in his observations of America in Democracy in America.
There seem to be two competing populist strains in American politics these days – one is of a reliance on a single man to somehow ‘make us great again’ by, as the author of the Jacobin blog puts it, “cranky protectionist math that just doesn’t add up.” The other is a naive belief that we can somehow stop a “rigged” system (one of Bernie Sanders favorite terms) by consolidating much more power into the hands of government and create a “fair” society by ironically confiscating wealth from the minority and redistributing it to the minority. These political forces of authoritarian machismo and tyranny of the majority to trample on the rights of an outvoted minority would not have been a surprise to the founding fathers, who did everything they could to try to prevent this type of descent in their founding government charters. For the American people who mistakenly believe that their support of a would-be despot who can get things done by the sheer dint of force due to his leadership and personality and that this is somehow consistent with American greatness, the echoes of the Roman senator droning on about Republican greatness while wearing the Emperor’s portrait begin to ring a loud clarion call.
In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville prophetically states that, “Governments usually perish from impotence or from tyranny. In the former case, their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their grasp in the latter. Many observers who have witnessed the anarchy of democratic states, have imagined that the government of those states was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that, when war is once begun between parties, the government loses control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or resources; say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force, and the misemployment of its resources, that it becomes a failure. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by want of its strength.’
Those bidding for stronger and more effective and decisive government are missing the point of America and are drawing the wrong conclusions. Our government is not without power and it certainly isn’t weak and in need of a saviour. We don’t need more government or more tyranny that I believe both a Trump or Sanders presidency would bring about in different forms. We need greater individual freedoms, less government, less laws so that the rule of law can be adhered to and respected, and a much greater veneration and knowledge of our founding charters and how government is supposed to function and the people’s role within it. Without these forces, the de Tocqueville prophecy of descent into anarchy is ever closer at hand.