Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A republic if you can keep it

Sean Illing interviews historian Edward Watts about the fall of the Roman Republic and parallels to the present day United States. The comparison is somewhat strained in ways that Watts and Illing do not discuss. The republic really dissolved in a civil conflict between competing warlords. Caesar seized power by military force, which is not a likely scenario for us. (The end of the Republic is usually formally said to have happened in 27 BC with the bestowal of the title "Imperator" on Octavian who was also allowed to call himself Caesar Augustus. However, the Republic had ceased to function as such under Julius Caesar, in 48 BC.)

Nevertheless Watts sees the failure of the Republic as essentially a loss of legitimacy of its representative institutions. As Watts says:

There’s a pivotal period in Rome, around the middle part of the 2nd century BC, in which there’s an economic revolution that displaces a lot of people who had belonged to a hereditary aristocracy and moves them off the top economic rungs of the state.
At the same time, it’s creating economic conditions that prompt people in the middle to basically become very frustrated that their economic prospects are not increasing either. And what ends up happening is the people who win from this economic revolution try to preserve their gains through just about any means they can, and that includes gross political obstructionism, the rigging of elections, and a total unwillingness to compromise.

While the rise of economic inequality and the stagnation of working class incomes are clearly central to our present institutional crisis, it has important other dimensions that do not resemble the Roman case. Carlos Lozada in WaPo reviews some books by lapsed conservatives and a couple of them put it well.

Charles J. Sykes: "For me 2016 was a brutal, disorienting, disillusioning slog. There came a moment when I realized that conservatives had created an alternative reality bubble and that I had perhaps helped shape it . . . Did we — did I — contribute to this prairie fire of bigotry and xenophobia that seemed to grip so many on the Right? . . . For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists. We treated them like your obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving . . . whose quirks could be indulged or at least ignored."

Max Boot: "Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the whole history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism."

The essential problem of conservative politics is that the true goal of conservatism is to protect the privilege of the wealthy. In order to win elections, conservatives need to get people to vote against their own interest. And that is what the racism, conspiracy mongering and ignorance are all about. They take the place of Caesar's army, in other words.  And so they must be defeated, or we will lose our republic.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...


Either half the country are just terrible, horrible monsters, OR, the characterization of their nature by the left is simply not true, everyone knows it and simply ignores their attacks.

If you have a better third possible explanation as to why people still vote for conservatives, I'd really like to hear it.

Don Quixote said...

I love your incisive analysis here. And, of course, thank you for quoting Franklin.

Cervantes said...

Dear anonymous, evidently you don't have very good reading skills. I did not say that people vote for conservatives because they are terrible, horrible monsters. I said they vote for conservatives because they are deceived. However, it is true that many people are racist, and conservatism has allied itself with racism. Racism is deeply imbedded in our culture, that is a fact.

BTW fewer than half the people vote for conservatives. Democrats consistently win the majority of votes for Congress, Senate and president. But they don't control the levers of government because of gerrymandering and the structural advantage the electoral college gives to small, predominantly rural states in the Senate and electoral college.

Anonymous said...

And as you have so reminded us, the US is representative republic, not a democracy.
Yet you bring up the popular vote many times as if it is a meaningful metric.

Cervantes said...

Of course the popular vote is a meaningful metric. A representative republic should be representative. And the reason it's designed this way is because of a compromise with slaveholders. It doesn't make any sense and it should be changed.

Anonymous said...


Honestly, that's pretty lame...and insulting to your fellow Americans. To say that they're so stupid that 63 million voted and no one could figure it out.

Are you seriously asking your readers to believe that just about half the voters are deceived...that if they knew the "truth" they would have voted for the other team?

Cervantes said...

Yes.

Anonymous said...


You don't understand the voters. This is why you lose, time after time.


Cervantes said...

Nancy Pelosi to be elected House speaker today.

Mark P said...

Anonymous, I think we understand the voters, as do the Republicans. The Democrats, for the most part, choose not to pander to the prejudices and racism of a large percentage of the population, while the Republicans choose to do so.

Don Quixote said...

I liked this part of Cervantes's post today (the final part):

"The essential problem of conservative politics is that the true goal of conservatism is to protect the privilege of the wealthy. In order to win elections, conservatives need to get people to vote against their own interest. And that is what the racism, conspiracy mongering and ignorance are all about. They take the place of Caesar's army, in other words. And so they must be defeated, or we will lose our republic."

Concise, clear, true. Not offensive. Just tragically true.

Once again, here's what LBJ--who understood prejudice, bigotry and the South--said:

"If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

I'm sorry, "Anonymous" (I know who you are), but you've come to this blog time and again with no wit, no humor, no sound premises, and nothing new to say. Your broken record is seemingly nothing more than an idiopathic anomaly.

Cervantes said...

In response to an unpublished comment:

Er, yes, LBJ was a Democrat. That's the whole point, he was explaining a truth. As president, he was also the greatest champion of civil rights and racial equality there had ever been in that office. That's also the whole point.

Your problem is that you can't seem to grasp basic logic and you consistently miss the point of everything.