NEW YORK TIMES: I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell. Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.
On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”
America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a president-elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.
And what happens to the republic as a result? Famously, on paper the transformation of Rome from republic to empire never happened. Officially, imperial Rome was still ruled by a Senate that just happened to defer to the emperor, whose title originally just meant “commander,” on everything that mattered. We may not go down exactly the same route — although are we even sure of that? — but the process of destroying democratic substance while preserving forms is already underway. MORE