Is Our Republic Ending?

Eight Parallels Between the Collapse of Rome’s Republic and Contemporary America

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
-Karl Marx

Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost documents the corrosive effect of money on our political process. Lessig persuasively makes the case that we are witnessing the loss of our republican form of government, as politicians increasingly represent those who fund their campaigns, rather than our citizens.

Anthony Everitt’s Rise of Rome is fascinating history and a great read. It tells the story of ancient Rome, from its founding (circa 750 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Republic (circa 45 BCE).

When read together, striking parallels emerge — between our failings and the failings that destroyed the Roman Republic. As with Rome just before the Republic’s fall, America has seen:

1 — Staggering Increase in the Cost of Elections, with Dubious Campaign Funding Sources: Our 2012 election reportedly cost $3 billion. All of it was raised from private sources – often creating the appearance, or the reality, that our leaders are beholden to special interest groups. During the late Roman Republic, elections became staggeringly expensive, with equally deplorable results. Caesar reportedly borrowed so heavily for one political campaign, he feared he would be ruined, if not elected.

2 — Politics as the Road to Personal Wealth: During the late Roman Republic period, one of the main roads to wealth was holding public office, and exploiting such positions to accumulate personal wealth. As Lessig notes: Congressman, Senators and their staffs leverage their government service to move to private sector positions – that pay three to ten times their government compensation. Given this financial arrangement, “Their focus is therefore not so much on the people who sent them to Washington. Their focus is instead on those who will make them rich.” (Republic Lost)

3 — Continuous War: A national state of security arises, distracting attention from domestic challenges with foreign wars. Similar to the late Roman Republic, the US – for the past 100 years — has either been fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a new war: WW I (1917-18), WW II (1941-1945), Cold War (1947-1991), Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam (1953-1975), Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001-ongoing), and Iraq (2003-2011). And, this list is far from complete.

4 — Foreign Powers Lavish Money/Attention on the Republic’s Leaders: Foreign wars lead to growing influence, by foreign powers and interests, on the Republic’s political leaders — true for Rome and true for us. In the past century, foreign embassies, agents and lobbyists have proliferated in our nation’s capital. As one specific example: A foreign businessman donated $100 million to Bill Clinton‘s various activities. Clinton “opened doors” for him, and sometimes acted in ways contrary to stated American interests and foreign policy.

5 — Profits Made Overseas Shape the Republic’s Internal Policies: As the fortunes of Rome’s aristocracy increasingly derived from foreign lands, Roman policy was shaped to facilitate these fortunes. American billionaires and corporations increasingly influence our elections. In many cases, they are only nominally American – with interests not aligned with those of the American public. For example, Fox News is part of international media group News Corp., with over $30 billion in revenues worldwide. Is Fox News’ jingoism a product of News Corp.’s non-U.S. interests?

6 — Collapse of the Middle Class: In the period just before the Roman Republic’s fall, the Roman middle class was crushed — destroyed by cheap overseas slave labor. In our own day, we’ve witnessed rising income inequality, a stagnating middle class, and the loss of American jobs to overseas workers who are paid less and have fewer rights.

7 — Gerrymandering: 
Rome’s late Republic used various methods to reduce the power of common citizens. The GOP has so effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts that, even though House Republican candidates received only about 48 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 election — they ended up with the majority (53 percent) of the seats.

8 — Loss of the Spirit of Compromise: The Roman Republic, like ours, relied on a system of checks and balances. Compromise is needed for this type of system to function. In the end, the Roman Republic lost that spirit of compromise, with politics increasingly polarized betweenOptimates (the rich, entrenched elites) and Populares (the common people). Sound familiar? Compromise is in noticeably short supply in our own time also. For example, “There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined.”

As Benjamin Franklin observed, we have a Republic — but only if we can keep it.

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post and has been reproduced here with permission.

11 Responses to "Is Our Republic Ending?"

  1. Alan8   December 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    The two corporate-funded parties are the ones saddling us with fascism and oligarchy.

    The Green Party doesn't accept corporate money, and is the antidote to the corruption. As little as 2-4% of the vote for the Green Party will get the attention of the corporate parties because many elections are decided by a smaller margin than this.

    5% of the vote will get the Green Party millions in matching Federal funds.

    The Green Party represents CITIZENS' interests — not corporate interests, and is a way to use our votes to fight back at the bastards that are pushing us into corporate slavery.

    • lariokie   December 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      Unfortunately, we live in a phony democracy which is structured by its "winner takes all" rules only to allow two parties to participate in any meaningful way. Any third party can hope only to be a spoiler for one or the other of the major parties. Without proportional representation or a parliamentary system, those who prefer alternatives to the two majors simply go unrepresented. The most amazing part of this is that with a straight face, we call it democracy.

      • Alan8   December 18, 2012 at 4:51 pm

        "Any third party can hope only to be a spoiler for one or the other of the major parties."

        You're overlooking the fact that this can be used against them.

        When the Democrats see "their" votes going to the Green Party, even a trickle, there's the implicit threat that MORE could follow them. Even a single percentage point can make a difference in a close election.

        The point isn't to make Democrats lose, but to threaten them with this possibility if they sell us out to corporate interests.

        A Green-Party vote leaves no uncertainty WHY the Democrat didn't get your vote.

  2. Chris Herz   December 18, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    The Republic is already dead as a mackerel. We live in a corporate successor state replete with military violence abroad and social stratification, limitless surveillance and police repression in the homeland.

    • Simple Mind   December 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      Spot-on encapsulation.

  3. sierra7   December 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    As the economic noose tightens on the American general public, that same public will finally realize that "the streets" will be the only way to "reform" and possible basic political/social changes we must make in order to just survive the future.
    The more our economic system crumbles, the more "distractions" will be needed, ie, more violence perpetrated in foreign wars.
    We are on the slippery slope to hell…….

  4. Michael Farrell   December 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    The constitution provides us some loptions above and beyond the Roman Republic. The founders were concerned about the danger of a Roman style dictator, the possibility of paralysis through an ineffective legislative structure, and arbitrary enforcement of laws and decrees. But, in themselves they are no guarantee of survival. The corrosive nature of money in our poltics is obvious; But the use of politics as a way of gaining wealth had not occurred to me. Naive that I am. And, the permanent state of war is another issue — I don't see it as quite to Roman levels, but there are some troubling trends. One thing to remember is that the legions were loyal not to the state so much but to their generals. The saving virtue of our structure is the ultimate inability of the man on horseback to take control. In the long run, it will be interesting. We'll be dead, but it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

  5. Proudscalawag   December 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    I guess this is why I've been watching most of the episodes of 'I, Claudius' on youtube!

  6. drrichard   December 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Yes, another good analogy is the fall of the Athenian Republic. They were victors over Persia, then fell into the hubris of trying to create an empire. Eventually they overreached by invading Sicily, went bankrupt, fell to Sparta, and turned into an oligarchy. Sadly when you mention "Rome" most Americans think of the empire, and many imagine it falling because of luxury-loving imperials. The truth is far different (it lasted for centuries after Nero). The end of the Republic is a far better example of a state that lost its way, and never recovered. But who knows history anymore?

  7. vallehombre   December 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    We still have several mechanisms that, if we have the will to use, can reverse our increasingly rapid decline.
    Taxation (including a major estate tax) effectively re circulates wealth. I can already hear the howls on this one.
    Fairness Doctrine on PUBLIC media. Reagan was quick to do away with it but It is certainly within the authority of the FCC to reimpose. It will put an end to the bat shit crazy church business and Faux news.
    Jails have been built all over the USA. Rather than fill them with immigrants and dope smokers let's look at filling them with bankers and politicians. The laws are already in place we just need to find a way to enforce them.
    Easy suggestions with no chance of ever happening. Meanwhile, I'm off to the circus… today is bread distribution. It's my right.

  8. Odoacer   January 15, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Reasons Rome Fell

    Lead Poisoning
    Monetary Failure
    Military Failure
    Rise of Islam
    Imperial Incompetence