Signs of the Late Republic

Posted on 2018 October 21

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History never repeats itself but it rhymes. — John Robert Colombo

In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus, leader of the Roman Assembly, tried to enact land reform to help the poor cope with an unfair economic system. His fellow tribune, Marcus Octavius, vetoed the plan. Push turned to shove, and Gracchus’s henchmen dragged Octavius from his speaker’s platform and blockaded him from carrying out his duties. Gracchus then tried to run for an unheard-of second term in a row, but was assassinated. Street riots erupted. Thus began the unraveling of the 500-year Roman experiment in democracy.

Decades of street fighting, insurrections, military battles, and coups tore up the fabric of Roman politics. By the time the smoke cleared in 27 BC, Augustus was emperor and the great Republic was no more. From then until its breakup in 476 AD, the Roman Empire was ruled by dictators.

Inspired by the original Roman democracy, and mindful of its mismanagement and ruin, the American Founders devised a Constitution that would, they hoped, safeguard the new nation from ancient mistakes. Despite bumps, scrapes, and an all-out civil war, the American experiment survived and became a light to the world.

Today, though, signs and portents hint at a darker future for American politics. In many ways, unrest among Americans resembles the turmoil of the late Roman Republic. Citizens are taking sides in divisive arguments about social norms, economic disparity, the purpose of government, and the general direction the country should take:

  • In September 2018, 84 percent of Republicans approved of President Trump, while only 4 percent of Democrats agreed.
  • That same September, support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh skewed sharply from a Republican 84% to a Democratic 9%.
  • “ . . . a record 90 percent of those who say they disapprove of the president now say they are supporting Democratic House candidates, up from 83 percent in August.” (Washington Post)
  • More and more Americans lately see the nation as split between rich and poor.
  • Much of the Left regards the U.S. flag as a symbol of injustice.
  • Since 2016, each side in the Senate has abandoned its “advise and consent” duty and instead simply tries to squelch its opponent’s nominations to the Supreme Court.
  • Ex-presidents Obama and Clinton campaign openly for Democratic candidates, breaking a time-honored tradition among former chief executives to stay above the fray.
  • Republicans want to prosecute presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; Democrats want to impeach President Donald Trump.
  • Left-wing Antifa activists clash violently in the streets with conservative opponents. Other activists, searching for dirt, raid senatorial email caches. Still others pound on the doors of the Supreme Court in protest.
  • Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, dining with his wife, is confronted by angry protesters, one of whom grabs the Senator’s take-out bag and throws it into the street, shouting, “Why don’t you get out of here? Why don’t you leave the entire country?”
  • Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic candidate for president: “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.”
  • Scott Wagner, Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, to his Democratic rival, Governor Tom Wolf: “I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes.”
  • Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va): “What we’ve got to do is fight in Congress, fight in the courts, fight in the streets . . . “
  • President Trump, on GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte’s physical assault on a reporter: “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy.”
  • Joe Biden, former US vice president: “If we were in high school, I’d take [Trump] behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

They sound like angry toughs warming up for a bar fight. 

The main point of democracy is to prevent this sort of thing. It’s not working. The nation seems divided into two camps that disagree so fundamentally on the American purpose that they’ve gotten to the point of condoning violence. Instead of discussion, people shout. Instead of respect, people condemn. Tolerance is replaced by calls for prosecution. The Rule of Law is threatened as each side thinks about taking matters into its own hands.  

After decades of political strife, Ancient Rome’s republic degraded into tyranny. Will Americans repeat that tragic history?

The Founders must be spinning in their graves.

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Posted in: Politics