Complacency — not pride — is what killed the Roman Republic | Test

In 63 BC, Cicero successfully pleaded for unity. But in 58 BC he was in exile from Rome, driven out of the city by a violent populist backed by a mob. Courtesy of Flickr.

Representative democracies have very different life expectancies, but they tend not to live long.

Democratic governments have been around for over 2,500 years, but most democracies have historically failed to survive for more than a generation. Indeed, the strongmen whose policies currently distort the democracies that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s in Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines are similar to the old tyrants who took control of young democratic regimes in former Syracuse and Cyrene. .

When a representative democracy passes through its first generation without falling into tyranny, political norms often take root deeply and models of democratic government become quite strong. This is as true for current republics like France and the United States as it is for ancient republics like Rome. In states like these, citizens value the voice of representative government and vigorously defend their freedoms against sudden and direct attacks by tyrants. Their representative democracies can last for centuries.

But even these old democracies are deadly.

As Americans who have lived for the past 25 years are well aware, citizens of representative democracies have less incentive to defend themselves against the slow erosion of political norms. In the years since the Republicans’ Newt Gingrich-inspired takeover of Congress in 1994, Americans saw government shutdowns become political tools, judicial confirmation routinely blocked, and even the denial of a hearing for a judge of the Supreme Court. None of these things were normal a generation ago. Many of them were unimaginable.

And yet American voters, feeling confident that their republic will suffer such assaults on American political standards, reacted with surprising indifference to these sweeping actions.

It is a mistake.

The Roman Republic shows the danger that arises from this kind of complacency. Rome lived under a republic for almost 500 years – more than twice as long as the United States – and its success led our founding fathers to model the nascent American republic on its Roman predecessor.

The Romans inspired the American separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, and the presidential veto, as Rome showed how these constitutional elements forced lawmakers to compromise by preventing narrow majorities from adopting policies that did not benefit. broad support. Rome and the United States have become economically sophisticated world powers because their republics have given them an unparalleled ability to build broad political consensus behind difficult national decisions.

But the ancient Romans ended up taking the survival of their Republic for granted. In the 2nd century BC.

This transformation has come at a time when the standard of living of most citizens has started to level off after two generations of fairly steady growth. The Romans first hoped and then demanded that the Republic respond to this growing gap between the super-rich and the struggling middle classes. In the 140s and early 130s BC. These wealthy opponents of economic reform did not use the veto power to find a more broadly acceptable compromise. They just did not want the issue of wealth inequality to be addressed.

Finally, in 133 BC. Backed by crowds of angry supporters, Tiberius impeached a rival lawmaker who threatened to veto his proposals, then funded his reforms by appropriating money normally controlled by his opponents in the Roman Senate. All of these things violated the Republic’s political standards, but Roman voters seemed reluctant to punish Tiberius for any of them. He was only arrested when opponents killed him in a riot.

But the ancient Romans ended up taking the survival of their Republic for granted. In the 2nd century BC. The tools that had fostered compromise and political consensus for more than 300 years were transformed into weapons.

The last century of the Roman Republic saw the Romans look away on several occasions as politicians followed the path laid out by Tiberius Gracchus and his rivals. Roman political life slowly but steadily degenerated into multi-year cycles of legislative deadlock that only erupted when Romans voted overwhelmingly for figures who vowed to do whatever is necessary to address long-overlooked issues. Then, when these populists inevitably crossed the line, their opponents often reacted violently. This cycle of political dysfunction has become more and more destructive each time it has reset. It only ended when Rome fell into the Civil Wars in the 1940s and 30s BC that killed the Republic and allowed Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, to take power as an autocrat.

The Romans failed to stop these cycles of political dysfunction largely because they did not imagine their republic could die. Indeed, no person or choice destroyed the Roman Republic. It was way too sturdy for that. But Roman politicians and voters who chose not to punish political obstruction, reckless populism, and intimidation gradually eroded the integrity of the Republic.

Throughout the last century of the Republic, some Romans attempted to unify their fellow citizens around the defense of the political freedom they all shared. None did it more eloquently than Cicero in the aftermath of a failed insurrection in 63 BC.

At the end of a speech he gave on November 8 of the same year, Cicero implored the Romans that “if we forever preserve this now established unity … no civil and domestic calamity will ever again be able to reach any part of the Republic “. Relieved to avoid civil war, almost all Romans applauded that day.

The painting Battle of Actium—By the 17th-century Flemish painter Laureysa Castro — shows a decisive naval battle in the final war of the Roman Republic. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But the unity Cicero called on the Romans to protect only lasted a few weeks, and the Romans quickly began to take stability for granted. On January 1, 62 BC, a political opportunist harangued Cicero to the Senate. In 58 BC, Cicero found himself in exile from Rome, driven from the city by a violent populist supported by a crowd of supporters.

Cicero’s allies engaged in equally destructive policies. His friend Cato hated Julius Caesar so much that he obstructed an entire Senate meeting in which proposals that could benefit Caesar were discussed. He bribed voters to support candidates other than Caesar. Claiming a questionable religious ban, he even worked with his son-in-law to try to block all public affairs during the entire year Caesar held the highest office in Rome.

All of these figures agreed with Cicero that the Romans should unite to protect their Republic, but, taking the strength of their republic for granted, they never let Republican principles deter them from a powerful line of attack against a political opponent. This myopia normalized a form of political combat where the Republic no longer set the rules and no longer protected the losers. Stripped of its institutional defenses, the Republic could not prevent the fall of Rome into civil war or stop the emergence of a Roman autocracy. And the Romans were shocked when the powerlessness of the Republic was finally revealed.

This is the real risk of political appeasement. Until the election of Donald Trump, Americans largely turned a blind eye to the damage the last generation of political dysfunction has done to our republic. Morally and legally questionable political tactics often seemed relatively harmless when they benefited people and approved policies. But today, Americans who continue to vote for senators who block judicial appointments made by the opposing party, representatives who support government shutdowns, and presidents who traffic threats and intimidation should realize that these decisions weaken our republic. We can avoid the complacency that condemned the Roman Republic. If we don’t, there is a real risk that the Americans will repeat Rome’s mistake.

David C. Barham