Democracies Are Not Forever… Is the US Headed Down the Same Path As Rome?

US Capitol, Roman Colosseum
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Phil Roeder / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Giovanni Paolo Panini / Wikimedia.
Reading Time: 14 minutes

Every day, no matter what the issue — whether it’s election integrity, rule of law, climate change, guns, impeachment, or the Mueller report — what’s at stake is not just daily political wins and losses, but the very survival of the republic.

As was the case at its founding, during the Civil War, and at a select few times in US history, Americans would be making a huge mistake if they took the survival of the nation for granted. History tells us that the Roman Republic had a very good 400-year run, only to have its citizens let it fail.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk to prize-winning historian, professor, and Rome scholar Edward Watts.

He takes us through some of the frightening parallels, which include cults of personality, dramatic wealth creation, the wearing down of critical guardrails and norms, and the willingness of Roman voters to ignore the damage being done as Rome exchanged freedom for autocracy.

Watts explains how, while it may have taken 100 years for the full effects to be felt, violent language, immigration issues, the ginning up of fear, and the violation of conventions in order to implement policy all played important roles. It’s ancient history we should well remember.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Each day more and more of our national political norms fall away. Our national leadership is at best a moral vacuum, at worst a corrosive force, a kind of autoimmune disease eating the very fabric of our country. The events of the past several weeks should remind us it does no good to hold the Pollyannish belief that it will all be all right, that we’ve been through this before, and that the democratic institutions that Madison and the founders designed, and the moral framework upon which they are built, can withstand anything that we face.
We like to think, based on past crises, that our systems are strong, enduring, resilient. Maybe, but there’s no guarantee that it will last forever. After all, the Roman Republic lasted for 500 years and then collapsed. It collapsed for many reasons similar to the issues and choices we face today. In what is still, at least for the moment, a representative democracy, we have the power to shape that fragile republic.
Putting all of this in historical context of the fall of the Roman empire, is University of California professor, Edward Watts. He’s a professor of history at the University of California San Diego. He’s the author and editor of several prize-winning books, including his latest, Mortal Republic, and has taught Roman and Byzantine history for nearly 20 years. It is my pleasure to welcome Professor Edward Watts to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Edward, thanks so much for joining us.
Edward Watts: Oh, thank you so much. I’m glad to join you.
Jeff Schechtman: You have been, as I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve been looking at this, studying this, understanding it for 20 plus years. Talk a little bit about how all of this has taken on a very different cast in light of the events of the past several years.
Edward Watts: I think that what we’ve seen, especially in the last probably decade, is a willingness by our politicians to play at the margins and exploit for short term gain the breaching of social and political norms. I think there’s a couple of things that are particularly alarming about this. You know, the issue for the moment that sort of jumps out at me as a sort of turning point was the decision to essentially stonewall the Merrick Garland nomination for really no reason except for the short term gain that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in Congress thought that they could get. This is, I think, particularly corrosive, as you mentioned, because it undercuts the very basis of what our Republic is supposed to be.
Jeff Schechtman: As those norms have fallen away, talk a little bit about why that’s important, particularly as you look at what happened in Rome and how the corrosive effect of norms falling away over a hundred-year period really had the disastrous effect that it had.
Edward Watts: I think the example that Rome provides to us is particularly useful to the United States for a couple of reasons. The first reason, of course, is that when the founders sat down and tried to figure out what system of government would work best for the United States, they immediately latched onto political theorists writing about the Roman Republic during the Roman Republic. We are, in a sense, living in a political system that is the child of the Roman Republic, very deliberately so.
On the other side, what we see with the Roman Republic is an incredibly robust republic that nevertheless declined and ultimately fell because of these very short-sighted decisions. It wasn’t just one individual or one decision that did it. This isn’t the 1930s where young republics like the Weimar Republic fell apart because of the charismatic actions of an individual. This is instead an old and robust political system that we live in. What that does in Rome, or what that did in Rome and what that does in the United States is it encourages a kind of complacency and an assumption that the republic will last forever. In Rome, what you see are politicians who, in essence, decide that a political norm that has held for hundreds of years should be discarded or can be discarded because it serves their own short term individual political interests. That’s not how we’ve behaved before in the United States.
Jeff Schechtman: The other broader context is the way we look at it in terms of the economy, the sense that creative destruction is so much a part of what we take for granted in economic terms and the displacement of incumbents by new systems and new ideas and new companies is something that we have come to take for granted. I’m wondering if we’re not applying the same ideas to our view of government today.
Edward Watts: I think that’s a really good point. I think this idea that all disruption is good, you know, maybe it works in some corporate spheres, but it doesn’t work politically. You know, a political system endures, in large part, because people are used to it and they understand the rules and they understand what the benefits of sort of winning a political contest will be. They also understand what the consequences of losing it will be. When those rules disappear, people don’t know how to evaluate their actions and they don’t know how to make choices. In the Roman Republic what you see is the thing that really undermines that republic is the moment when the republic seems to be unable to protect people who lose a political conflict. Then all of a sudden those people have to resort to whatever means they have available to them to secure their lives and their livelihood. In that sense, disruption, you know, it’s profoundly frightening to everybody, because all of a sudden the system cannot protect people and it cannot hold.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we see with the fall of the Roman Republic, and you talk about how long it took, how long, over 100 years plus that the system was eroded. We’re living in a world today where all of this is happening at hyper speed, and it seems to me that we get to the Rubicon a lot faster in this way.
Edward Watts: I would say that we are probably at least 25 years into this cycle. I think if we look back to the mid ’90s and the way that Gingrich and the sort of new Republican majorities in Congress in 1994 started behaving, the willingness to break with established conventions, you know, looking back to say the government shutdowns of 1995. This started a generation ago, and so we’re in the middle of it, but I think the thing that’s particularly dangerous is when you read these things congratulating the courts or congratulating the states for standing up and resisting what looks like an erosion of norms. Every moment that that happens is good and it is a positive step, but it doesn’t mean the crisis has passed. You know, I think what Rome shows is when you have an established republic that faces these stresses, it takes a very long time for the defenses of that political organism to break down. We have to be vigilant and we have to basically eliminate the malady. We can’t just sort of trust that every small victory is the end of the crisis.
Jeff Schechtman: How much do you think that the founders understood this as evidenced by their suspicion of political parties?
Edward Watts: I think that they understood this quite well. You know, I think that they had seen in British politics, especially early 18th century British politics, the danger of party and how party could, in some cases, lead to civil strife on partisan grounds, because it provided a sort of mechanism to mobilize people quickly and in large ways. Part of the appeal, I think, that they saw in the Roman Republic is it had no political parties. It had political alliances, but these weren’t permanent things, and perhaps some of the strengths that they saw in the Roman Republic was the ability of a system to, in essence, sort of channel individual ambitions and control them by keeping this on a kind of individual level. Their suspicion of party, I think, was in part reinforced by some of the political alliances that came at the sort of final stages of the Roman Republic that really sort of undermined the last defenses of the republican system.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the points at which, with respect to the Roman Republic, things might have been turned around, things might have been reversed.
Edward Watts: I think that there are maybe three moments that we can look at and see the possibility that things could have gone differently. The first of these was something that I think almost passed unnoticed when it happened in the second century. The Roman economy of the early second century in essence discovered finance, and what you see is the same kind of thing that we’ve seen in the United States and the western world in the last 30 years. People who have access to financial instruments in the Roman Republic, as in the United States, can become fabulously wealthy very quickly, and in a way that is profoundly destabilizing, and in the Republic and in the United States, this occurred at a time when regular people, the vast majority of people living in the society, see their wealth and their prospects stagnate. This produced a lot of dissatisfaction that was bubbling through Roman politics in the 140s and 130s B.C., and Rome just failed to respond. Now this is a very difficult thing to respond to. In a modern context, we understand it better than the Romans did, and we still can’t really respond to this wealth gap. Had Rome come up with a way to do this, I think the republic never even would have faced the crises that it did in the late second century and early first century.
I think another issue that is particularly, another moment that is particularly useful for us to think about was around the year 90, when Rome was faced with a crisis about whether to extend citizenship to Italians who had been coming to the city of Rome for almost two generations because their economic prospects were better in Rome. This was demagogued by individual Roman politicians and ultimately resulted in a war between Rome and its Italian allies that spiraled into a Roman civil war and the imposition, the first moment in Roman Republican history where a general marched his army on the city of Rome to take power. I think if that crisis had been resolved differently, you never would have had the civil war that ultimately sort of really destabilizes the republic in the ’80s and subsequently.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other things you talk about is the way cults of personality emerged in the Roman Republic, particularly in stressful and difficult times.
Edward Watts: Yeah. That’s something that is particularly alarming as you move into the last phases of the republic. As the system becomes destabilized and as people begin to lose faith that the republic can actually protect their interests, they start turning to individuals who they think can serve this purpose. Then so in the ’50s, Pompey the Great, the great Roman commander and general, he serves this role as a kind of stabilizing force in the city of Rome, to the point where many Romans believe that the city cannot function without Pompey basically in charge of it.
In the 40s, Julius Caesar plays this role, and again you see riots and violence in Italy and in the city of Rome when Caesar’s not there. That calmed very quickly when Caesar comes back to the city. The person who really figures this out and figures out how to sort of play this role in a permanent sense and in a permanent way is the first emperor, Augustus. The reason that he’s able to sort of reign as emperor is because he figures this out, and he figures out a way to be the person who promises stability and promises protection and can do it in a way that’s enduring. This is the foundation of his empire and the foundation of his power as emperor.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that’s so contradictory, and I suppose ironic about this, and it relates to our current climate, is that in a way, there is this desire for charismatic leadership as a way out, as a solution to the problem, and yet it is clearly the power and stability of institutions that is more the answer.
Edward Watts: Yeah. I think that that’s the lesson that I think we should try to take. It’s important for every citizen of a republic to occasionally step back and take a broader view of what’s going on around them and understand that the best defense they have to remain politically free is to defend the system that is preserving their freedom. There is certainly a temptation to turn to somebody who promises to make things better immediately. You know, this is obviously something that we’re seeing now in the United States, in Brazil, in Turkey, but that in a sense is at best a temporary solution.
The long-term view should be to step back and defend the institutions that we have inherited and that have made our country strong. That means that instead of embracing an anti-Trump who can oppose Trump, or embracing a Trump who can oppose Obama, what we need to do is embrace the system that allows for a sort of orderly transition and an orderly sort of process of deliberation and debate. It doesn’t feel good to do that. You know, it doesn’t feel like we’re making a decision that has serious and profound consequences because it’s a small decision. In essence you’re voting to not reward people who behave badly and violate political norms, but in the long run, that’s the play that will save our republic and allow us to feel protected and safe and comfortable as citizens of a representative democracy.
Jeff Schechtman: Right. I mean there’s also this aspect of a vicious cycle about it, in that all of this, and leaves itself so wide open for authoritarianism, in that it creates this chaos which then creates somebody to say: “Essentially only I can solve it.”
Edward Watts: Exactly, and the only-I-can-solve-it moment is the most dangerous moment in a republic, because a republic allows, it requires citizens to elect people to represent their interests. What the republic and what every republic throughout history has assumed is those representatives will reflect diversity points, but they will also work to establish a sort of compromise that then is binding because everybody’s voices are represented in that conversation that frames the compromise. When someone says: “I alone can do that”, they are claiming to represent your views, which is a very republican idea, but they aren’t facilitating compromise, and that means they exclude all of the views of people who do not agree with them. That’s a cancer within a republic because it seems republican, but in practice it’s the antithesis of what a republic should be.
Jeff Schechtman: Which raises the broader question of whether or not any of this can work in our modern society, whether there is a fatal flaw in the republican system that in a world of 24/7 news cycles and things moving at hyper speed, and siloed tribalism, whether or not there is a fatal flaw in republican government that simply can’t work in the modern age.
Edward Watts: I think that that’s a point that has been raised in republics throughout history. You know, I think it was a real vital question in the 18th century as well. Now you didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle, but what you had was the ability to sort of produce very quickly political pamphlets and materials that could spread to a partisan audience, and the founders were very aware of what that did in 18th century England and the sort of conflicts it produced. In the Roman Republic, the ability of ideas and news and information to spread through the city of Rome, it’s not a 24/7 news cycle, but word can spread very quickly and events and opposition can develop very quickly as well.
I think we are moving faster, but I don’t think the sorts of challenges we’re facing are categorically different from what republics have faced in the past, nor are they categorically different from what our republic was designed to sort of buffer. I think what’s different is the unwillingness of people, and here I think Republicans bear a lot of the blame, the unwillingness of people to use the republican structures that are supposed to promote compromise, to actually to come to compromises. I think that there’s an unwillingness, at least in part of the United States polity, to find compromises on issues, and that’s different, I think.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess it’s important to perhaps try and understand where that happened exactly. What was the tipping point moving away from that compromise, in order to get back to it ultimately?
Edward Watts: Yeah. I think there, I think the Roman Republic offers some pretty scary examples. You know, Rome did come back to basically a model where compromise was facilitated, but it was an authoritarian model, because ultimately what had to happen was somebody had to be responsible for the state functioning, and I think what we have right now is an unwillingness among certain politicians to acknowledge that things have to happen in the United States. We can’t just drift forever. What I hope can happen is that there will be a sort of snap back among the voters to acknowledge that yes, things need to happen, and there are policies that need to be enacted, and there are changes that need to be recognized, and government has a role to play in doing that. I hope it can happen within a republican system.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the end game in the Roman Republic and how it ultimately unraveled at the very end.
Edward Watts: The end game for the last, say, 20 years of the Roman Republic involves this very basic tension between a state that must function and the desire of individuals to promote themselves. The tension becomes one of individual political figures trying to use the elements of the republican system that are supposed to promote compromise to simply block their opponents. What this leads to is the mobilization of armed supporters and armies and a series of civil wars that end up with one person taking charge by himself. I think that the process that we see unfold there is one in which the needs of citizens are asserted and individual politicians try to meet those needs in a minimum way, in a fashion that encourages their own political standing and their own political fortunes.
I think what we see in the late republic is a process by which politics becomes individualized. There are a host of different people who are promising that they alone can fix the problem, and politics becomes a sort of individualized tribalism where each group in the Roman polity is gravitating towards a specific individual who is promising to solve their problems. There’s no way for a political system to mediate that kind of conflict, and that then becomes not a political conflict, but a military conflict. And the final stages of the Roman Republic sees what had been, for centuries, a set of issues resolved politically become a set of issues that can’t be resolved in any way except through armed violence. Ultimately when Augustus prevailed in that armed violence, there’s no republic left. There’s just Augustus, who alone promises to solve all the problems in the Roman state.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, knowing this history as well as you do, what worries you most? What single thing worries you most about our present moment?
Edward Watts: The thing that is really scary to me is the creeping of violence into our life, into American life and into American political life, because the rhetoric that has been deployed mainly on the right against people deemed to be opponents, it has become so vicious that people are now taking it upon themselves to act against individuals and to start attacking individuals. This doesn’t ever end in a good place. When violent rhetoric enters the Roman Republic, it happens starting in the 130s, political violence follows not even a year later. Rhetorical violence in a tense political environment leads to actual violence, and the more that violence metastasizes through society, the closer we are to armed gangs or even the military taking sides and starting the fight. This is profoundly dangerous, and the fact that everybody is not immediately running away from this kind of demonization of others, this is really, really a difficult moment for us.
Jeff Schechtman: Professor Edward Watts. Edward, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Edward Watts: Oh, thank you. I had a great time.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another RadioWhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Till Niermann / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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4 responses to “Democracies Are Not Forever… Is the US Headed Down the Same Path As Rome?”

  1. Noreen Curran says:

    I do not really think we have a democracy. Some say we have a govt run by the corporations.

  2. Butch says:

    Just saying, in reality democracies have never existed, by the people for the people is a mere dogmatic mantra that is used by plutocrats and oligarchs that create an illusion. Its blatantly obvious and in plain sight, the only thing that has any say is $$$, therefore there can be NO democracy, just disgusting plutocrats using world populations for their gain. It’s a closed system of slavery under the guise of freedom. The so called economy has been rigged and is a giant “Ponzi”scheme orchestrated by the Fed and Wall Street, the biggest thieves of mankind. Probably all about to tumble soon, and painfully so, but the “can” can only be kicked so far down that increasingly narrow road.