In ancient Athens and the Roman Republic, citizens voluntarily exchanged representative government for authoritarian rule; Could America repeat its mistake? | Columns & Letters | Spokane | Interior of the Pacific Northwest
A consensus in our fractured body politic is that democracy is in danger. Yet a 2021 poll found that 42% of Republicans viewed Democrats as a “serious threat” to democracy, while 41% of Democrats viewed Republicans as such.
There are palpable threats to democracy: voter suppression, gerrymandering, hardline and obstructionist legislators, unbridled cowboy capitalism, dark campaign money and foreign subterfuge. There is a crucial distinction between these real threats and the unfounded belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent, the belief held by 72% of Republicans. In a 2022 poll by the COVID States Project, one in 10 insisted that violence against the government was needed “now.”
Democracy faces a crisis that may not have been seen since the civil war. The fates of ancient Athens and the Roman Republic, as well as the warnings of our founding fathers about the fragility of democracy, are instructive.
IIn the first democracy, The Athenians decided to restore Athens to greatness after its humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War by executing Socrates for teaching his students to ask questions. Much later, Socrates was appreciated — posthumously exonerated and revered as a hero equal to the brave Athenian hoplites who defended Greece against the dreaded Persian Empire at Marathon. But with the death of free inquiry personified by Socrates, democracy perished in Athens.
Our own democracy depends on citizens trained in schools of free examination. Can democracy survive when civic education is subordinated to training workers for commercial servitude? Or when history is sanitized into cozy fairy tales by “patriotic” programs reminiscent of Soviet agitprop? And when teachers are monitored and purged of deviations from these? (See PEN America’s 2021 “Educational Gag Orders” report.)
Can democracy endure as our sources of information turn into consumer products for profit, audiences entertained by charlatans concerned only with ratings and ingesting only what satisfies the appetite and confirms partisan biases? Ignorance makes citizens easy prey for demagogues like Senator Buzz Windrip of Sinclair Lewis in It can’t happen here and Andy Griffith’s charlatan in A face in the crowd.
For half a millennium the ancient Romans had a republic that was a model, albeit an imperfect one, for our constitutional government. The demise of the Roman Republic was, unlike the violent demise of democracy by the Jacobins in the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, or the Nazis in the German Weimar Republic, more insidious but no less deadly. .
The senators who assassinated Julius Caesar were not motivated to save the Republic but to avenge Caesar for his reforms which benefited the plebeians at the expense of their patrician privileges. Caesar calculated that with his largesse to the plebeians he could control the opposition senators and take power as king. After all, Caesar had his sycophants in the Senate who, according to historian Will Durant, “patriotically denounced the destruction of a freedom that had fattened their wallets…Freedom had become a license. The smell of money and an ill-informed population”, docile to bread and circuses, condemned the Republic, replaced by a dynastic and deified imperial regime, partly the cause of Rome’s decline.
Ignorance makes citizens easy prey for demagogues like Senator Buzz Windrip of Sinclair Lewis in It can’t happen here and Andy Griffith’s charlatan in A face in the crowd.
Today, scholars of our own “imperial presidency” argue that the expansion of unchecked executive powers – secrecy, unilateral use of war powers and executive decrees/”privileges” – have undermined the constitution to the detriment of democracy. And now, as in Imperial Rome, culture offers plenty of ways to distract and amuse us as new Gucci-accessorized barbarians loot with impunity.
Be clear: ordinary Athenians and Romans, either actively colluding with Athenian aristocrats and Roman patricians, or passively acquiescing, were the willing or unwilling executioners of democracy. Yesterday and today, for citizens to consciously overthrow their own political power by opting for authoritarian rule seems madness.
Ancient thinkers were skeptical that citizens could stay rational to govern themselves, especially during crises. Our founding fathers feared that the republic would succumb to the irrational, visceral dark of our little angels.
JHomas Jefferson believed, according to Fears of a setting sun (2021), that if “luxuries and privileges were kept at bay and…citizens properly educated”, the republic might weather a storm. When the truth is relative to one’s tribal affiliation, what constitutes “properly educated” remains a source of acrimony. James Madison feared a tyranny of a majority.
That the January 6 insurrection is considered by the Republicans as a “legitimate public discourse” confirms these initial apprehensions. And it’s untenable to espouse democracy while practicing a “freedom for me but not for you” ethic. Remember the tensions inherent in the “peculiar institution” of the prewar South that sparked the Civil War.
If history teaches, and given our unchanging nature, we will again drift into a new conflagration. After its extinction – and if democracy recovers – we will profess that we have learned from the past and, with the foreseeable onset of historical amnesia, we will wonder how it could have happened here. ♦
John Hagney is a retired history teacher who spent 45 years at Lewis and Clark High School. He was named Professor Emeritus of the American Presidential Scholar and has published an oral history of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms which has been translated into six languages.