Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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Of the People, Not for the People

"Necessary, sensible and popular reforms, along with more questionable measures that may have been politically expedient, were all being blocked by a small minority of aristocrats. The inertia at the heart of the Republic was alienating many citizens at all levels of society."

This sentence comes not from a history of recent American politics but from Adrian Goldsworthy's 2006 biography of Julius Caesar, which I'm currently reading. Goldsworthy offers a fascinating account of the years of Caesar's rise, years when the Roman Republic saw its institutions begin to unravel in the face of corruption and bitter personal rivalries. It's tempting these days to compare America and Rome, and not in the favorable manner of the Founding Fathers, who deliberately used symbols like the eagle and fasces to invoke the supposed virtue of the ancient Republic when they founded their own. But one thing that Goldsworthy's account makes clear is that the Roman Republic was not nearly as virtuous as its 18th-century champions would have it. It was a place where political disputes were resolved by sword as often as debate, where the government only nominally saw its role as a representative one, and where upstart politicians often ignored the laws to further their own ends. Though it produced some outstanding statesmen like Cicero, it was hardly the marble-columned realm of enlightened debate often depicted in modern imagery. And while America's own past certainly isn't as virtuous as the oblivious rhetoric of tricorn-clad Tea Partiers and Constitutional originalists would have it—doesn't anyone remember the Hamilton-Burr duel from elementary school history? Or Charles Sumner's caning on the Senate floor before the Civil War?—it's difficult to read Goldsworthy's account without feeling grateful that America isn't more like Rome.

Yet there is one aspect of the Republic's demise that is unsettlingly reminiscent of contemporary American politics, and it has little to do with the excesses of Empire or the erosion of virtue that declinists since Gibbon have enjoyed recognizing in their own nations. It's the decline of public institutions, the descent of once vital laws and bodies into sclerotic dysfunction. In Rome, the Senate became not a governing body but a collection of competing individuals, each senator seeking to prevent the others from gaining prestige, a climate unfavorable to reform. Its provincial governors sought personal enrichment over good administration, and ambitious young men like Caesar prosecuted elder statesmen (often on false charges) simply to gain the notoriety they needed to ascend to higher office. Institutions designed to curb rulers' vices and elicit their virtues were perverted into instruments of power.

A similar process is taking place in contemporary America. Everywhere, the Framers' ingenious safeguards against human nature seem to be breaking down. Congress is increasingly unable to pass any legislation, each party blaming the other for sabotaging compromise. The president criticizes congressional inaction while simultaneously using it as an excuse to arrogate more power to himself. The Supreme Court has become a highly politicized body, its members divided along inflexible ideological lines. Everyone claims to be representing "the people," to be opposing the "enemies of the Constitution." And citizens increasingly feel that government no longer works for them, that the only thing senators accomplish while in office is their own enrichment. The budget fight that looms in December and the prospect of another Pyrrhic struggle over the debt limit early next year only threaten to worsen the situation.

This is a perilous juncture that it seems most governments are destined to face. As institutions age and bureaucracies grow and entrench themselves, government at some invisible point becomes more of a burden upon a nation than a source of energy. President Obama campaigned in 2008 as one who would reverse this process; his results have been at best mixed, and understandably so: the task at hand is beyond the power of one man. Certainly Ron Paul's proposal to take a machete to the last 150 years of policy is not the answer, nor is Mitt Romney's belief that government is just another troubled company that needs a dose of private equity. What will really restore America's public institutions to efficacy is the public, though what form such a popular movement would take in these atomized times is unclear. If the driftless Occupy movement is the best the Facebook Age has to offer in the way of mass politics, then we can hardly hope for lawmakers to seriously pursue reform anytime soon.