Shortly after the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was accosted by a woman as he came out of Independence Hall: “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Franklin’s response was straight to the point: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
The Founding Fathers insisted on keeping any notion of the despised English monarchy entirely out of the foundation documents of the new nation they were creating. And although none of them anticipated today’s rise of political parties, our political practice has always celebrated the primacy of citizen power over aristocracy while at the same time limiting the authority of the popular majority.
The history of republics suggests keeping them is no easy matter. They intrinsically teeter between the slippery ease of an authoritarian regime, often in the form of a monarch or some such “supreme leader,” and the unlimited authority of the masses, best seen in the direct democracy of, say, the French Revolution.
The great English historian Edward Gibbon wrote “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in the latter part of the 18th Century. A real chest-cracker (it was originally published in six volumes), it traces the long, sad decay of the Roman Republic from the early days of upright citizen patriots to a series of corrupt emperors to social and economic disintegration. The book today is regarded as the fundamental examination of the factors that lead to the deterioration of republics, whether Germany (ended by Hitler in 1933), Italy (ended by Mussolini in 1922), even Russia in the 2010’s (ended by Putin and his crowd of klepto-hangers-on.)
By instinct, most Americans believe that republics (and their near variant, democracies), although fragile, are the optimum form of political organization. Anybody who reads President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address experiences a twist in the gut at the image of a government of the people, by the people and for the people not perishing from the earth. Lincoln was right; most have perished. What we have is extraordinarily rare.
Gibbon pointed to two primary factors in the decline of republics: oligarchs and demagogues, two truly dangerous political species made all the more so when they appear in combination. You get all kinds of trouble when small clusters of the extraordinarily wealthy and self-interested are linked with opportunistic demagogues who can mobilize the inchoate anger of the rank and file.
And these days we’ve got big, big trouble. You cannot in good conscience call the folks who pour unprecedented hundreds of millions into today’s secretive political action committees (PAC’s) anything but plutocratic oligarchs. We’ve seen lots of demagogues in American history – in mid-20th Century Huey Long and George Wallace were southern-fried examples, and in the 1950’s commie-hunter ex-Senator Joe McCarthy fits perfectly the type. But today for the first time we are experiencing a demagogue who is coming close to Presidential power.
When I ran a congressional office in Washington in the 1960’s, I would leave the office late in the evening. I would go down to the Lincoln Memorial, deserted, blazing in the bright white night lights. I would stand alone in front of Mr. Lincoln and read his gripping words on the walls. And I would come away comforted.
When my wife Kathy and I were in Washington last month, we went to the Lincoln Memorial early on Sunday morning. There were only a very few people there. And I thought about Mr. Lincoln and the fragile state of our republic. And I literally went down on my knees and prayed for help and comfort for our nation.
As Gibbon wrote, all it takes is an inattentive or bored citizenry to set the stage for the decline of the republic. Today we live in an age when social media trivialize our policy discussions into 140 characters. We see candidates debating on TV indulge in playground insults. And secretive billionaires dump millions of dark money into political action committees.
Why there is not a mass uprising against all this is a complete mystery to me. May God help our country!