Friend reminded me of this old JAG post by Decius (now Anton), from the run-up to 2016 election.
The Late Republic
While it’s tempting to weigh in on the pundits’ reaction to Super Tuesday or the Trump-KKK flap, this is Journal intended to be high- or at least upper-middlebrow. We can’t promise we won’t tackle those subjects—it can be hard to resist blasting away at easy targets—but for now we intend to remain focused on our core mission: providing a more solid historic and philosophical grounding for justified conservative discontent.
The old adage about generals fighting the last war has never been truer than it is now with respect to conservative pundits re-litigating all the old arguments. They yearn for restoration with more fervor—and much less realistic hope of success—than Charles II. But restoration of what? Their own status as arbiters, of course. But let’s give them some credit. Most of them probably do want to effect a restoration of the Reagan consensus, the “three-legged stool,” and above all “limited government.” One imagines them idling on a pier, waiting to board the S.S. Conservative for its glorious cruise into the broad, sunlit seas of rightwing revival—not realizing that their ship hasn’t merely sailed; it sank.
All the prescriptions conservatives offer miss the point fundamentally. “Man, unlike a crab, cannot crawl backwards,” Nietzsche said. (Or something like that). Return to Reagan’s 1984 is impossible (to Orwell’s, maybe not). And it’s not because of the Democratic-liberal conception of “history” as monodirectionally more “progressive,” as in “everyone we disagree with is on the wrong side of history”—an idea most fully formed in Hegel, but the seeds of which were planted earlier.
Still, “history” does a play a role, just in a different way. We’ve remarked earlier that the success of republicanism—and of epiphenomena such as “limited government”—depends on the republicanism of the people. It would be nice if that sentiment—oh, what the hell; let’s call it “virtue”—could be maintained indefinitely, for “if such a republic were so happy … it would be perpetual.” But nature and nature’s God seem to have designed human beings differently.
The ancient philosophers theorized a kind of Second Law of Thermodynamics for politics that became known as the “cycle of regimes.” One can find the cycle discussed in many great works of political philosophy, though perhaps the most concise and easy-to-follow is found in the historian Polybius. The basic idea is that—absent any external forces—men, and hence political regimes, ascend from bad to good and degenerate from good to bad in an endless cycle.
[V]irtue gives birth to quiet, quiet to leisure, leisure to disorder, disorder to ruin; and similarly, from ruin, order is born; from order, virtue; and from virtue, glory and good fortune (Machiavelli, Florentine Histories V 1).
It is hard to examine the current condition of the United States and not conclude that we are on a downward slope of the sine curve. If that is true, then all the conservatives’ horses and all their men can’t put this republic back together again. Bleating on about child tax credits and the like isn’t going to change that.
As we move from philosophy to history—from theory to practice—it’s true that we find few examples of this dynamic in action (though the “cyclical history” of China might be the best real-world case). However, we must remember the caveat: “a republic always lacking in counsel and forces becomes subject to a neighboring state that is ordered better than it” (D I 2.4). How many republics in history have lacked such an external threat? Two stand out: the United States and ancient Rome.
A cursory examination of Roman history shows that the Romans followed the Polybian script almost to the letter—except for the part about rebirth and renewal. Rome was founded by kings, who eventually became tyrannical and were overthrown and replaced by an aristocracy. That nobility in turn became haughty, overbearing, and avaricious, provoking a popular reaction that forced the regime to incorporate popular elements. But having tasted power, the people began to crave sole authority, and also indulged in revenge against the nobility for real (and perceived) injustices and so beat them mercilessly down until the authority of the senate was a shell of its former glory and the regime was no longer mixed. Popular rule in turn led to ever greater indulgence of popular appetites and consequent dysfunction in the state.
Does any of that sound familiar? Founded by a monarchy which enables the establishment and early growth of the nation—check. Monarchy becomes overbearing and tyrannical, provoking a revolution—check. Early, post-revolutionary government consists of exceptionally prudent elites who generally govern in the interest of the common good—check. Eventual emergence of an economic oligarchy that fuels massive wealth inequality—check. Inevitable popular reaction forces massive expansion of the franchise and further democratization of the state and society—check. Popular government continues to devolve toward the lowest common denominator and the state barely functions any more—check.
Now, the parallels are not exact. Rome, too, had a Civil War. But its was purely a contest to decide who would rule after the final collapse of republican government. Ours, on the other hand, was a sectional and ideological conflict that as it were interrupted the natural progression of the cycle. One could also argue that the popular reaction in the U.S. was far less linear than the cycle seems to predict. For instance, the popular revolts of Andrew Jackson and the Progressives were separated by nearly 75 years. Also, the oligarchy (“robber barons”) did not directly follow, nor grow out of, the post-Founding era squirearchy. These differences too, however, can be chalked up the anomaly of our Civil War.
But even some of the differences point to the deeper similarities. While the timing was different in the two cases, Rome and America both emerged as world bestriding powers without seeking to via any conscious plan. One may analogize our World Wars to their Punic Wars. The zenith of Roman power was the conclusion of the Second (202 b.c.) and its aftermath, just as it’s now reasonably clear in hindsight that the zenith of American power was the post-WW2 era until the beginning of the Vietnam quagmire. Also similar, once Rome (after the destruction of Carthage; 146 b.c.) and America (after victory in the Cold War) faced no more truly existential threats, both began to decline.
Another non-trivial difference is that it’s all happening a lot faster this time than it did in Rome. From the founding of the city in 753 b.c. (if one accepts the traditional date) to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was 2,206 years. Or if one prefers the fall of the Western Empire (traditionally dated to 476, when Odoacer overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustus), then Rome lasted 1,229 years. But one might still say that this in an inapt comparison, as the United States has (as yet) not passed into an imperial age. So let’s end at 30 b.c., Octavian’s final defeat of Antony and the traditional beginning of the Roman Empire. That’s 723 years. But one might protest that this was a mere foreordained formality. OK, fine, then let’s take as our end date 49 b.c., the year Caesar was first appointed dictator. That’s still 704 years.
From Jamestown to today is only 409 years; from Independence Hall, a mere 240.
Or, to break it down more precisely:
- Rome under its kings: 244 years (753-509 b.c.).
- America under the English/British monarchy: 169 years (1607-1776).
- Early republic; the “Patrician Era”: 142 years (509-367 b.c.)
- Early republic; Founding to the dawn of the “Age of Jackson”: 52 years (1776-1828)
- Middle republic I; the “Conflict of the Orders”: 80 years (367-287 b.c.)
- Jacksonian Era to sectional crisis: 26 years (1828-1854)
- Middle republic II; rise of a new oligarchy: 154 years (287-133 b.c.)
- Gilded Age: ~1870-1900 (30 years)
- Late republic I: Populares v. Optimati, the Gracchi to Marius: 45 years (133-88 b.c.)
- Rise of the Progressives and Democratic realignment: 67 years (1901-1968)
- Late republic II: Sullan reaction to Augustus: 58 years (88-30 b.c.)
- “Silent majority” and Reagan Revolution to ??
Why so accelerated this time? The Feiler Faster Thesis? Maybe. But only insofar as that thesis is itself an epiphenomenon of philosophic modernity, particularly in its pernicious later manifestations. We hope to go into this further in a planned later post. Suffice it to say, for now, that modern philosophy may well have begun as a justified and necessary corrective to the theological ossification of thought—just as the Reformation began as a necessary reaction to an institutional church selling indulgences and trying to make the papacy hereditary. But whatever the merits of the best of the moderns—among whom we would include Locke, Sidney and the American Founders—later thinkers, beginning with Rousseau (at least), began the process of radicalizing and deepening every modern premise. And that process has turned out to be not corrective but corrosive and cumulative. As a result, “modern western man no longer knows what he wants” and has lost all “faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims.” The highest tenets of our age are instead relativism, nihilism, radical egalitarianism, libertinism and hedonism, all mixed in a kind of toxic brew with the messianic insistence that nature is whatever we can torture it into becoming.
But let us return to our matter. The most important point to take away from the timeline above is to see that in the Roman case there was no happy ending, no “going back.” The rebirth that cycle theory promises didn’t happen. Is there any reason to think it would happen for us? Especially when we are burdened with the additional millstone of late modern thought, with which Rome never had to contend?
One could say that such a rebirth or return has already been tried and already failed. It’s not too much of a stretch, and anyway it’s fun, to analogize pivotal figures in American history to the great men of Rome. Plus there is precedent. Hamilton, Madison and Jay after all pseudonymized themselves as “Publius,” after Publius Valerius Publicola, a founder of the Roman republic. The great anti-Federalist Robert Yates chose the name Brutus, after Publicola’spartner. Might we not also conclude that the two Roosevelts bear a certain resemblance to the Gracchi and LBJ to Marius?
The last serious, principled reaction to the leveling democratization of Rome came from Sulla. This is not to assert that Sulla was a wholly principled man; only that, unlike later partisans of the optimates, Sulla can plausibly be said to have acted at least in part from public-spirited as opposed to purely self-interested motives. In that sense, and in many others—no proscriptions, no bloodbaths, no (twice) marching an army into Washington, no dictatorship—Reagan was the superior man. But Reagan also—like Sulla—posed the last serious challenge from the old-time political religion to democratic drift and constitutional corruption. And like Sulla, he failed.
Historians will one day—if history is ever again written by honest men—come to see these times as our “late republic.” How far into the late republic are we, and how much longer do we have until whatever is coming next finally comes? I do not know.
I do not think Trump is Caesar. I don’t even think he is Cataline—that is, a proto- or would-be Caesar who seeks the tyranny but who will fail owing only to bad luck and his own incompetence. Trump, if elected, may turn out to be a terrible president. But I believe he will serve no more than his Constitutionally permissible two terms—just about the only Constitutional form we still honor.
I do think—and I say this with a heavy heart—that it is time for good men to begin thinking through how we can shape, for the better, whatever does come next. Those who do not dismiss this thought as crazy will denounce it as fatalism. To them I can only say: aren’t there enough pundits working feverishly on policy papers to pave the way to the glorious Reagan Restoration? Do you really need more of us doing that? Or doesn’t it make sense for someone to begin working on contingency plans in case the restoration doesn’t work out? For I do fear that, probably sooner than later, we will be the “late republic” in quite another sense.
In any case, we will go forward with our project, even if (for now) no one is listening. And even if no one ever does, we shall continue, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right—and with full realization that our vision may turn out to have been blurred, or worse. Because, for the moment at least, things seem clear, and we can do no other.