Collin Garbarino’s provocative article, “Laughing at the Death of Our Republic,” published over at First Things, grossly overstates the condition of American politics. Garbarino is not the only one racing to proclaim the death of the American republic, but articles like this display a macabre lust to be the first coroner on the scene to give an exact time of death.
Over the last two centuries, the American experiment in ordered liberty, despite its faults and challenges, has brought peace and prosperity to an entire continent; and post-World War II it has arguably led to a Pax Americana promoting stability, liberty, and peace around the globe. Certainly, if one is going to declare the death of the American Republic he or she needs to lay out a case in more than 600 words. It is quite startling to proclaim the death of such a noble polity in such a cavalier manner; it is akin to eulogizing George Washington in a tweet.
Are there severe problems with our liberal democracy? Yes. Is it lost or irrevocable? No. While the system has been strained, it is still a vibrant and functioning liberal democracy where power peaceably transitions every four to eight years. While there is clear evidence of decline in key areas, what was once created can be recreated or refashioned in light of new challenges and new times.
America Is Not Rome Yet
As Jimmy Stewart reminds us in the classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here, you just have to see them.” Our government was and is a product of “reflection and choice,” as the Federalist proclaimed. The future is in our hands (with all due deference to divine providence). If we sit around and laugh at American decline we likely bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy; a result that will fall hardest on the weak and powerless around the globe and here at home.
Garbarino’s analogy to Rome is a helpful discussion point and his caution that our republic could slip into empire is a fair topic to examine. However, even here one must gain some perspective. Rome, as a republic and an empire, went through long cycles of decline and resurgence over periods sometimes lasting hundreds of years at a time. How are we to know that America will not have a similar period of resurgence? Rome’s republic also experienced radical internal strife where political opponents were listed for proscription as enemies of the state, then killed; thankfully America has not reached that point and hopefully never will.
Furthermore, the Roman republic lasted more than 500 years and we are less than 250 into the American experiment with likely many good years to come. This article reminds one of the black plague scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It is as if Garbarino hoisted the American republic on his shoulders and is trying to throw the still live body on a pile of corpses. All the while, the republic is shouting, “I’m not dead yet!” “I feel happy!” Just in the way the scene unfolds, one is half expecting Garbarino to strike it with a club just to prove his thesis.
Banish Chicken Little Syndrome
Conservatives need to get over this “chicken little” syndrome where the sky is continually falling. Morbid pessimism is not helpful. We need fewer conservative grim reapers and more Churchills or Lincolns rallying the nation to live up to its highest principles, not declaring the battle lost in the midst of conflict.
Conservatives need to be reminded that one of the three theological virtues is hope. We as citizens should be called to cultivate and to model hope for the country, the world, and our young. We can still be realistic and address problems or concerns, but we should not ignore the likely reality that the American experiment still has many good years, perhaps centuries, ahead of it, especially if thoughtful people resist the temptation to rush to shovel dirt in the empty grave of a still-great republic.