I thank Darren Patrick Guerra for interacting with my ideas in his article, “America’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated.” I agree with some of his assessment, but I’m afraid that he missed my point. Perhaps some of the blame lays with me, for not being clearer, but I think Guerra prejudged my argument and then responded to other people’s writing on this topic instead of mine. I’ll try to be a little clearer here, but I doubt Guerra will like this article any better.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t think America is in decline. I did not intend that idea to be part of my argument. On the contrary: America’s relative power in the world is at its height. Of course, one might justly characterize our current geopolitical situation as a worldwide race to the bottom, so perhaps saying America is still on top won’t impress anyone too much.
I should have made it clear in my original article that I find the conflation of the idea of “America” with any particular form of government, in this case a republic, unhelpful. My stance is that America has persisted under various forms of government. The first happened to be a republic, but those days are long passed.
How America Is Like Rome
Guerra also misrepresents my argument when he writes, “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.” I actually said exactly the opposite: “I’m not saying that we’re heading in the same direction as Rome. I actually think we’ve already charted a different course.” I strongly disagree with anyone who argues that America might follow Rome down the path from republic to empire. That kind of simplistic thinking is based on the false notion that history is cyclical. But if history isn’t cyclical, why do we even bother to compare America to Rome?
We compare America to Rome because our founders consciously patterned our republic on Rome’s. In republican Rome, a citizen’s political participation depended on property ownership; the same was true for our early republic. Rome had assemblies and a senate that guided the state; the founders gave us a House of Representatives and a Senate to make laws. The chief magistrates of Rome were consuls, who combined civic leadership with being masters of the legions; America has a civilian president who is also commander-in-chief of the military. The American founders gave our president the right to veto legislation, a power of the consuls and tribunes in Rome. We even took the eagle as our national symbol.
Our founders used the Roman Republic as a model because they couldn’t very well copy Britain’s constitutional monarchy right after the war for independence, even though most liberal-minded writers at the time judged Britain to be the best-governed state in Europe. American thinkers turned to older writers, and they found what they were looking for in the works of Polybius and Cicero. Just like Americans, the Romans also had an antipathy for monarchy, although theirs stemmed from completely different historical events. (Remember, history doesn’t repeat itself unless we’re consciously emulating our forebears.)
A republic—a state with no king. A government in which the matters of state would be in the hands of the people. Roman authors claimed their Republic’s constitution was the best kind of constitution because it mixed the features of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy into a single government. This government would be able to resist the abuses to which each of the simple forms of government was prone. Our founders read these authors and believed them.
We’re Not Degrading Into Imperial Rome
Guerra seems to have fallen for the same rhetoric when he writes, “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.” Our founding fathers certainly hoped that our republic would last 500 years, but there’s no reason to think past performance is an indicator of future results. Besides, those 500 years of the Roman Republic were pretty checkered.
Rome’s Republic really wasn’t as glorious as Cicero made it out to be. Senatorial elites fought constantly for advantage over one another. The city of Rome was almost constantly in a state of war with its neighbors. After Rome ran out of neighbors to conquer, the Republic descended into about 60 years of civil war. After the civil wars came the emperors. Augustus, the first emperor, didn’t kill the Republic. The strongman merely stepped in to fill the power vacuum that existed after institutions of government ceased to function decades before.
Let me say again: We’re not heading for an imperial system.
We’re not heading for an imperial system because we’ve already worked out an alternative to our dead republic. As I said in my original article, we now have an elected monarchy. Sure, we don’t call it that, but that doesn’t change that that’s what we have. Guerra even hints at this in his article: “While the system has been strained, it is still a vibrant and functioning liberal democracy where power peaceably transitions every four to eight years.” Notice that he identifies the government with the office of the president. That was not the vision of the founders.
We No Longer Have a Republic—We Have a Monarchy
We didn’t end up with an imperial system (and we won’t) because history isn’t cyclical, and Americans stopped trying to emulate Rome. We found a way to navigate the end of republican government without 60 years of violence. Our elected monarchy is actually far superior to Rome’s imperial system. We have a tradition of peaceful transition and a constitutional method for succession, two things that Rome never mastered.
One thing we do have in common with the ancient Roman Empire, however, is that we still pretend that we have a republic. Both America and Rome managed to inaugurate new forms of government without actually changing the constitution. Hundreds of years after Augustus, some Romans still paid lip service to the Republic, even though they recognized that political power rested in the person of the emperor. We do something very similar.
On paper, our American form of government has changed very little over the last 200 years. In reality, our government operates in a manner that would be unrecognizable to the drafters of the Constitution. Every branch of government has gone through a radical change in its relative power, and we didn’t have to rewrite much of anything. One might argue that I’m cutting my distinctions within America’s political history too fine. Historians, however, look for the distinctions.
Most people are familiar with the division of Roman Republic and Roman Empire, but historians argue over the significance of this division. We also argue over all the subdivisions. The early Republic was not like the late Republic. Some ancients even suggested that the Republic died 120 years before Augustus became the first emperor. Moreover, historians break the Empire, which masqueraded as a republic since it technically had no king, into Principate, Crisis, and Dominate, because each functioned so differently even though most institutions remained constant. Historians even argue over when Rome ceased to exist altogether. If we can argue about these things regarding Rome, we can definitely do the same for America.
These Changes Aren’t Definite Until They’re Over
Forms of government are like a man’s facial hair. We don’t get from clean-shaven to beard overnight, but at some point we’ve got to make a judgment call. I’m looking at what we’ve got now, and it’s pretty hairy. Not that there’s anything wrong with a beard.
I’m also not saying that we are stuck with an elected monarchy forever. For all we know, Congress might reassert itself and put the monarchial president on notice. Some event might occur that causes the federal government to hand real power back to the states. There’s no telling what’s on the horizon, because history isn’t cyclical. We’re charting our own course. However, as we chart our own course, it helps to look back at historical examples and at times emulate them.
The idea of “Rome” lasted for more than 2,000 years, long outliving any of its particular forms of government. This is the genius of countries like Rome, Britain, and America: Change without acknowledging it. This is true conservatism. Conservatism finds a way to navigate the future without breaking with the past. This genius is why people continue to argue over history. Transition is messier than a clean break. It’s also much more stable, and it’s most stable when no one notices that it’s occurring.
Conservatism does not dogmatically adhere to the way-things-used-to-be. Usually we don’t even remember the past correctly. Cicero shouldn’t be our model for conservatism, even though he championed republicanism. Conservatives ought not argue that we can go back to some idyllic past that never really existed.
Guerra ends his piece by reminding conservatives “that one of the three theological virtues is hope.” I encourage conservatives to remember that having hope in republicanism is not part of conservatism. Classical liberalism, the thing that our American conservatism conserves, was more than happy with constitutional monarchy. I’d also like to suggest that hope in republicanism, even our American brand, is not a theological virtue. Hope in God is.