Should conservatives think that America is, as the title of Jay Cost’s new book says, A Republic No More? Or that, as Mark Levin has said, that we are no longer a “Constitutional Republic?” Or is the Imaginative Conservative’s Bradley Birzer correct to say that the Roman historian Livy “predicted the fall of America,” as if that fall were imminent?
Well, no. We are not in a post-republican or post-constitutional situation. Nor are we on the brink of a “fall” into such.
And if you read beyond their titles and headlines, you’ll see that all three of these conservatives actually understand this. Birzer lets readers draw their own conclusions from the passages of Livy he quotes about the likelihood of America’s fall. Levin has uttered at different times slightly varying versions of his “post-constitutional republic” line, but his summary statement linked above says we no longer have a “vibrant constitutional republic,” which, strictly parsed, means we still have a republic, and one that is still essentially if not vibrantly constitutional. Cost is seemingly more emphatic, but it turns out that what he is describing is a situation in which a certain kind of corruption has become a permanent feature of American governance, such that it pushes aspects of it “beyond the boundaries of the Constitution” — well, I’d say such a government would have to be classified as a corruption-afflicted republic still guided by constitutionalism, albeit of a weakening kind.
What these three conservatives are really pointing towards, then, is the possibility that ours is a late-republican situation. What characterizes such a situation?
First, it is one in which if the present trends continue, the republic will fall, as did the Roman one of old. Episodes of Constitution-defiance and law-dodging by various officers of the government increase in frequency. Ordered democratic say diminishes, while mob-led, or at least mob-like, approaches to public discourse and political decision increase.
Second, the government becomes characterized, sometimes overtly but more often in the de facto sense, by a mix of anti-constitutional and constitutional features, and of anti-republican and republican features. Similar observations can be made about the character of the overall regime – that is, what we often call culture.
In a future post, I’ll highlight the many differences between the (post-Gracchi and pre-Rubicon) Roman situation and ours, but let’s note a most important one up front: We generally lack real mobs, and we completely lack real political violence. Real political violence features protests of the sort we saw against Governor Walker in the state capitol, but with the important addition of a number of persons getting killed or maimed.
Let me backtrack a little. As I’ve repeatedly argued, Obama’s Big Amnesty executive action was a landmark desecration of our Constitution. And arguably, worse than Obama’s threatening it and doing it was the Democratic-party decision to go along with it. Yes, the typical Republican response has been deeply dismaying as well, but there is a categorical difference between inadequate pushback against what is at least said to be an abomination and shameless acceptance of it.
But if we really are in late-republican times, then our anger about November 20, 2014, and probably about similar outrages to come, should all the more be channeled into a spirit of strategic thought. Anger that refuses to step back to a wider perspective, and especially if it rages only with words, is no good. Such anger draws one into uttering doomsday sentences of the sort that are simply inaccurate assessments of the situation. Or sentences that damn Democratic-voting Americans as inherently mindless. Such pronouncements, and the Obama era has seen more and more of them from rank-and-file conservatives, essentially lead one to despair of doing anything:
“If Obama is allowed to do x, the Constitution is finished!”
“If the Republican leadership doesn’t do y, I will sit out politics, until they see the error of their ways!”
“A moderate form of liberalism is impossible.”
If we are in late-republican times, the luxury of uttering such statements is not one we can responsibly indulge in—rather, we are obliged to be more precise about what sort of damage our system is sustaining, and to articulate a politics that deals with it.
Do I think we are in such times? Well, I will say this: The current behavior of the Democratic half of the electorate, in passively accepting Obama’s unconstitutional actions and innumerable lies, but also a host of other violations committed by party leaders and other purported agents of progressivism against fundamental civic decency, has shaken me out of the instinctual trust in “America the Okay” that I used to have. (For those not familiar with the sorts of violations I have in mind, try the implicit list provided midway in this Joseph Bottum piece for starters, or just recall what the names Gruber, Lerner, Blagojevich, Sharpton, and Lakoff stand for.)
I recall a discussion I had back in 2000 with a fellow Straussian graduate student who felt that American democracy was sliding toward a willingness to accept tyranny, just as classical thought would have predicted. I felt this view was quite out of touch. If in the long term the classical warnings had to be taken with utmost seriousness, I found it very hard to see how our republican democracy could fall in our own lifetimes. “How can we imagine the members of our military going along with any effort to establish despotism?” I had other arguments.
But in 2015 I think we can imagine a United States in our lifetimes that gets bankrupted, that gets heavily “sorted out” region-wise and institution-wise as liberals and conservatives find less and less in common with one another, that gets its big institutions, especially federal, riddled with corruption to the point that no statistics or statements from them can be trusted, that sees a general decline in trust and respect for the law, that gets saddled with de facto executive supremacy, and that sees serious secession efforts. I find all of this strangely plausible now, in a way I sure didn’t in 2000.
Given present developments issuing in some of the outcomes just listed, it really is imaginable that a series of crises could lead either to the (1) dissolution of the U.S. and the creation of new confederations (but likely without a major civil war), or to (2) a series of right-wing “emergency” dictatorships that purport to want to return us to true constitutionalism. Perhaps just as imaginable, and not requiring crises, would be the gradual implementation of a (3) leftist or “liberal-tarian” Soft Despotism in which the citizens are totally dependent upon government, and discouraged from exercising any meaningful associational liberty, including religious liberty of the non-privatized sort.
I can imagine one of these scenarios occurring within 50 years, perhaps even 30. Yes, if I watch a sporting event, go to a shopping center, attend a graduation ceremony, or talk with my relatives, the sheer power of American normalcy, of long-ingrained and shared expectations of what our life together consists of, makes all these scenarios seem preposterous. But such a sense of normalcy has fooled other peoples in times past.
Do note this — none of these scenarios, perhaps excepting the third, would signify the end of the American tradition of republican liberty. Life would go on, and so would politics. Just as in Rome the possibility of a return to the republic haunted the likes of Cato, Brutus, and Cicero, and even extended out to the days of Lucan, the possibility of returning America to its full republican form of government would remain on the horizon, as would the possibility of it, or its divided parts, degenerating into lower-yet levels of despotism.
A similar coldly objective perspective can also be applied to the present: if a constitutional provision is disobeyed by one republican officer, or even several republican officers in a row, it can happen that another comes along that re-dedicates the government to obeying it. A damaged constitutional order remains a constitutional order. The yanking out of a single “thread” of a constitution is not guaranteed to unravel the whole body. Of course, it is not guaranteed to not unravel it, either.
So the moral imperative of Late Republican times, if that’s what we’re in, is two-fold: a) make vigorous efforts, including ones that will get one branded as “extremist” or “reckless innovator,” to sustain the constitutional fabric, and b) prepare for the best “post-fall” outcome possible, that is, the best “able to preserve republican liberty for the most, and most liable to return it for all,” outcome. That imperative contains no room for grave-sounding, but in fact cynically self-excusing, talk about America’s imminent doom.
It also indicates that real “prepping” has nearly nothing to do — until the worst approaches — with stocking up on supplies and ammo. Real preparation for the republic’s possible fall would logically have to be mostly about building up trustworthy (and non-internet-based) networks of like-minded fellow citizens locally, and organizing in the more typical nationwide ways to fight the necessary political and legal battles. That is, if you really love liberty, and it really is in danger, you need cut back the hours at the firing range, so as to have time to study subjects like law, rhetoric, and clandestine organizing. Serious study of political history, political philosophy, and theology/ecclesiastical history would also be useful.
More soon on late-republican topics, and particularly on conservatives’ short-term prospects. As bad a year as 2014 was, it did feature a Republican wave victory, after all. With that in mind, and in the dull and otherwise dismal light of Hillary Clinton’s visage, a case after all exists for things turning out well enough for the short term.