On How Republics Die

If you are the sort of person who is inclined to seek insights in the republics of the past, Cicero is the sort of person who is easy to appreciate. A smooth-tongued new man who rose from provincial status to become one of the most powerful people in the late Roman Republic, Cicero’s eloquence and appealing rise from obscurity make him easy for people to cheer on and have made him a popular subject of study and praise. Yet even as his life has been justly celebrated and posterity has been kind to his vanity (including his puffery about having defeated a conspiracy through his mere eloquence while serving as consul), it is important to remember his end. Despite not being among the senators who assassinated Julius Ceasar, it was known that Cicero was no friend of Caesar or the autocracy that was already ascendant in the dying Roman Empire, and as a result when Octavian (before he secured power as Augustus and became the first Imperator of the Roman Empire) made peace with Marcus Antonius and established the short-lived second triumvirate, included on the list of people to eliminate before peace could be made between the two rivals was Cicero, whose ugly end bought a few years of peace at most in a time of frequent civil disorder in a republic that was falling into tyranny and oppression.

Students of history, though, know that the Roman Empire was moribund long before Cicero’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic. With the benefit of hindsight we can look at the period where the Roman Republic went from a struggling republic to one that had been mortally wounded, and that moment occurred nearly a century before the end of the Roman Republic when the populist leaders of Rome, the Gracchi, were both assassinated by those who felt threatened by their message of populism that had begun to resonate with the populares of Rome who had missed out on the wealth that Roman expansion had given the Roman elites. Once political power became used to enforce violence on one’s political enemies, the die had been cast, and Rome’s republican experience was doomed to failure, even if it took Rome a long time to actually perish as a republic, as the forms of the Roman Republic continued to struggle on for many decades even after the virtue and restraint of the republic had been lost in periodic civil wars between Marius and Sulla, between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and ultimately between Octavian and the assassins and Marcus Antonius that finished the mortally wounded republic off for good.

What are the conditions which are required for genuine republics to endure? One of them is a commitment to the process of discussion, by which no victory or defeat is ever final. So long as it is realized and accepted that every election is merely a snapshot and that a defeated party or faction can change its argument and seek (and obtain) a governing coalition in the future, no mistake is final. The voters of any body can always make mistakes, but it is the ability to go back on those mistakes and make different choices that allows for growth and the endurance of free institutions. This requires, though, that we see opposition as being loyal to the ground rules of discourse that can always overturn any electoral decision in the future. As long as this is accepted, the behavior of people in power is restrained by the knowledge that their time is not permanent, that it may very well change and that one’s opponents may rule in the future, and so one’s hostility to political opposition is restrained by one’s awareness that how one treats others will be paid in kind to oneself. Arguments over words, rivalry and verbal hostility, as unpleasant as they are to many, can be kept within boundaries so long as it is recognized that one’s opposition one day may be one’s rulers the next election, which encourages mutual respect even where there is serious disagreement about the best course of action a government should take.

Where this restraint is lacking, genuine republican virtue cannot be found. Once someone, be it a ruler or a ruling faction, decides that they will not accept being out of power ever again, and that their loyal opposition deserves to be treated like maggots or cockroaches, they in turn become the monsters that threaten the destruction of their constitutional regime upon which the legitimacy of their rule stands. The use of temporary political power to attempt to keep an active opposition from being able to run for office through politically motivated persecution and prosecution, until only a tame and captive opposition that is completely docile remains, or until political opposition leaves the realm of rhetoric and enters the realm of violent dispute and deadly retribution for previous abuses of authority marks the death of any republic. All too often in history, tyrannical rulers and corrupt elites accuse their opponents of being threats to democracy while themselves serving as the executioners of the republics that they claim to serve. At the time, people may have to bend before political inevitability, because they lack the force to counter such tyranny with, but the condemnation such evil rulers receive for the civil disorders they bring into being is just and severe and lasting, whether it is enforced at the time or in the world to come.

How is virtue to be shown by those who do not fear either God nor man, who have no knowledge of or interest in the lessons of history, who fancy themselves to be above the laws that they enforce harshly on common people who they consider themselves also to be above and political enemies? How are such people to be taught that the fear which haunts them about being brought to justice is not an evil but is a good that is the vestigial conscience that they have long seared and suppressed? How are such people to be brought into a remorse and repentance that provides insight that they, just like everyone else, stand at the dock under the stern hand of the supreme Judge and the verdict of a history that they will be unable to defend themselves against after they draw their last worthless breath? How are such people to understand that their behavior destroys the foundation upon which they seek to build the edifice of their rule, and that in rejecting restraint that they eschew building on the rock and instead construct foolishly on quicksand, and that when the storm comes as it will inevitably come that the institutions they rule and the monuments they construct to themselves will come crashing down in ruin? For as the totalitarian regimes of the world have shown us over the past wicked century, a regime can slaughter its political enemies by the millions in concentration camps, gulags, and laogais, famines and plagues and self-destructive warfare, but those who inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings will be justly cursed for all eternity. Is temporary power worth such a fate?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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