FAILURE OF A REPUBLIC
Karl Arnold Belser
3 May 2016
am concerned about the political situation in the United States.
We apparently have two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton
(Democrat) and Donald Trump (Republican), that are disliked for various
reasons by a large part of the American population. This may or may
not be a risk to the American Republic because of the design of
the US Constitution as I discuss in my post Democracy in America.
In short the president has limited power and only congress can
control the nation - in theory.
I wondered how the Roman Republic fell. Could there be a parallel here?
The Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris: Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator, describes the last days of the Roman Republic. I read this Trilogy to see if there are any lessons to be learned. The articles in the previous links to the books give good summaries.
Cicero was one of the most influential politicians in all of history, and he attempted, pretty much single handedly, to correct the ills that had accumulated over centuries in the Roman Republic. The Achilles Heal was that there was too much power in the hands of the generals like Pompey and Caesar which power the state could not (or chose not to) control. As they say Power Corrupts and Absolute power Corrupts Absolutely.
The United States is fundamentally a product of Judeo-Christian values, which values were absent in Rome before the birth of Christ. So is the Congress as corrupt as the Roman Senate in the first century BC and what are the sources of excessive power today? One can only guess at the severity of the current situation.
First, the US Congress is overburdened with raising money for maintaining a political position as the Huffington post describes in the article: Call Time for Congress Shows how Fund raising Dominates Bleak Work Life. In short many congress members spend only 2 hours a day out of 8 to11 hours doing the work of government. The rest of the time is used in raising money or political maneuvering. One result is that the people in the US are poorly represented by Congress. Many people under 40 see little hope of a good economic future, and they are unhappy. The other result has been that the US president has pushed (some say exceeded) the limits of his power without being reined in by Congress.
One might also note that the median net worth of congress people is more than 15 million dollars, putting them in the top 0.1% of the nation's richest people. SO in a sense their incentive is to maintain their position of wealth at the expense of serving the people. This sounds similar to the corruption by bribery of the Roman Senators in which people were more focused on getting money than doing the work of governing.
Second, the burden on the congressmen to raise money has been exacerbated by the Citizens United Decision in the Supreme Court, which allows super PACs to raise unlimited amounts of money anonymously to support political causes. The result has been that an enormous amount of power has been given to corporations and the very rich. These rich people and their corporations are analogous to the generals and their foot soldiers of Roman times.
To date no politician has threatened the United States with his or her excessive power. In fact the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the use of US military force in domestic conflicts. However if Martial Law were declared the highest ranking military officer, i.e. the US President, would be in charge as essentially a dictator. The United States has had to declare Martial Law several times in its history without undermining the republic. Dictatorship today might even be facilitated by the extreme provisions of the Patriot Act.
There might be a potential for the US Republic to be overthrown if, for example, the social contract between the government and the people would be broken. See my post Future Politics to see how western civilization developed a social contract.
Recall that in Rome returning soldiers were promised land and money and that all citizens were promised a loaf of bread every day. These promises could not be kept by the Romans an it contributed to the conflict at the end of the Roman Republic.
I note that today the United States has promised its citizens some 150 trillion dollars in benefits. I do not see how these promises can be kept, especially since gross world product growth seems to be stagnating. I simply observe that what can't be paid won't be paid. However, it may take decades for the promises to be broken to the point that there is conflict.
In summary, the United States has made promises that it can't keep, and it has a congress that is so dysfunctional that it has been unable to act to fix the situation. This sounds a lot like the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Roman Republic.
Last updated May 6, 2016
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