By Joe Costello. From his book Of, By, For: The New Politics of Money, Debt and Democracy
Looking at Western civilization starting around the time of the Ancient Greeks, there are only scattered and relatively short periods of self-government. There were the Greeks and Romans, but after the fall of the Roman republic in the 1st century BC, self-government would disappear from the West for well over a millennium, reappearing briefly in Italy during the Renaissance, in Amsterdam, Switzerland, and in fits and starts in England. It wasn’t until the establishment of the American republic two centuries ago, that self-government reasserted itself and not until the 20th century would it become ubiquitous across Europe.
Contemporary Americans have little regard for history. We have an even greater diminishing appreciation for the rarity of self-government, even less appreciation of this inheritance bequeathed us, and a decreasing priority to pass it to future generations. Republics don’t collapse abruptly, they are gradually eroded, like Rome. The American republic strains under its military weight and paradoxically its great wealth. Republics don’t collapse into anarchy, they shrivel as dispersed power is gradually pulled away from the citizenry and concentrated in centralized government, in the executive.
The only real reform for a republic, as far along the path of decline as the United States is, is to breakup power. Thomas Jefferson was asked how in the last decades of the Roman republic it should have reformed. He replied simply, “Restore independence to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do its will.”
The ability for the United States to undertake such a restoration can only spring from the will of the American people. Yet looking beyond the degradation of America’s institutions, we see the republic as a sensibility has declined amongst the people themselves.
Political culture defines the political health of the people; the culture’s decline leads way to the government’s. A few years ago, HBO had an entertaining and educational series called Rome, about the last decades of the Roman republic. In one scene (starts 4:20), they did an exceptional job of simply putting forth the idea of popular decline. In the middle of his war with Octavian, Marc Antony is lulling around Egypt smoking opium and bedding Cleopatra. At this point, Rome is a stinking cesspool. Dressed in Egyptian garb and wearing eyeliner, he gets a message from Octavian taunting him as a coward. Furious and with no self-knowledge of his very un-Roman environment, Antony demands an opinion of his cowardice from Lucius, his chief military-aid.
Lucius, who in the series represents Rome’s old republican virtues, replies Antony is no coward but, “You do have a strong disease in your soul. A disease that will eat away at you until you die.”
Antony replies, “Really, what is this is disease?”
Lucius, “I’m not a doctor. But, I recognize your symptoms. I have the same sickness.”
We Americans have the same disease and we all must fight against it. The only cure is democratic political participation. These processes are the cornerstone of our experience and they must be regular features of our daily lives.