One of the downsides of being a fond reader of the dying embers of the Roman Republic is that one finds so many alarming connections between the end of the Roman Republic and the state of the contemporary American republic. Where exactly we sit on the timeline between the peak of the Roman Republic at about 146BC or so with the destruction of Carthage and the destruction of the Roman Republic itself in the aftermath of Actium in 31BC is unclear at this point, but what is very clear is that in the rising partisanship and increasing economic inequality and collapse of domestic institutions the United States and its current political crisis strongly resembles the fall of the Roman Republic in many obvious ways. The choice, when one looks at the history of republic regimes and their inevitable failures because of the moral failings of mankind, is whether a republic will die with a bang or with a whimper.
How does a republic die with a whimper? Let us consider the present state of Oregon, an area I happen to know somewhat well as a resident. What has been going on in Oregon and in other states through the year of 2020 demonstrates the death of republics with a whimper, where executives use phony arguments to create a state of emergency and engage in the massive and irregular destruction of the ordinary freedom to act through executive orders and that are generally accepted because of the appeal of safety. In Oregon’s case this is especially egregious because restrictions are among the harshest in the nation despite the fact that Oregon’s rates of covid cases and death are among the lowest in the United States, at less than half the national average. One sign of a republic in peril in this way is when rules change arbitrarily with little justification and with none of the legitimacy that comes from consent by those who are subject to such arbitrary and useless restrictions.
In stark contrast, when a republic dies with a bang, it attracts a lot more attention than the alternative. Civil Wars are a classic means by which republics die with a bang. Even in a case where the end result of a civil war is something I would approve of, as is the case with the Spanish Civil War or the American Civil War or the Finnish Civil War, the end result is a drastic change in politics. The Spanish Civil War, for example, led to the defeat of socialists and anarchists (a very good thing), but also led to decades of economic poverty and political isolation (a very bad thing), as well as the destruction of the Spanish Republic whose instability provoked the war. Similarly, the American Civil War led to the end of slavery (a good thing), but subjected proud Southerners to cultural and political dominance by arrogant Yankees (not a good thing, admittedly) besides destroying a great deal of the economy of the South (a very bad thing). Even the best of civil wars have immensely destructive effects on the political legitimacy of regimes as well as the economic and moral health of a country, although they at least tend to be remembered.
Whether a republic dies with a whimper or a bang, though, a republic eventually dies. And such a fate is seemingly inevitable, especially for an imperial republic like the United States. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. For one, the survival of a Republic depends on widespread political virtue among the people as well as the rulers as servants of the people, and neither of these elements is easy to maintain. It is especially difficult for imperial republics to preserve their virtue as empires are a major threat to virtue through the ability to exploit subject peoples and engage in massive profiteering and land speculation. Similarly, unjust economic and political regimes within a country like serfdom and slavery tend to reduce virtue because of the way that people within those nations are exploited and internal societal cohesion is threatened by massive and permanent conflict. This was the fate of Athens, it was the fate of Rome, and it will almost certainly be the fate of the United States.
Indeed, we are already well advanced in suffering such a fate as a republic. Our store of republican virtue is at a low level. Our political leaders regularly engage in corrupt crony capitalism and enrich themselves at the expense of the public. Elections lack legitimacy given the regularity of vote harvesting schemes and other management techniques. Governors regularly rule without consent of the governed through the exploitation of “emergencies” and the widespread use of executive orders and decrees. Bureaucracies pursue their own interests contrary to the will of elected leaders and, to the extent it may be known, the will and interest of the peoples. None of these are new problems, but the current state of the United States as a whole is definitely one of crisis. It is unclear, to be sure, whether this is simply one more crisis in a Republic that has certainly survived many of them, or whether the republic is in a terminal state, but either way, the signs aren’t good.