Friday, October 08, 2004
the end of the republic
i had hoped that something more serene would come to mind for making the second post on what is sure to become a far-too-time-consuming endeavor -- but instead, i get "terror". i guess i'm as susceptible to advertising as anyone who fights their proletarianism, even if the product i'm being foisted is militant paranoia.
my namesake knew the power of the word, and used the fear of the romans to leverage himself into an unprecedented run of authority -- seven consulships, a predecessor in practice to the absolute dictators that shortly followed him. marius was rome's first demagogue, a new man of humble birth who played upon the disaffections of the roman people with the patrician classes that dominated the senate. his message -- "the nobility is no better than we are" -- was as powerful then as it is today. and it eventually spelled the end of the republic at the hands of the unruly mob led by another demagogue, who was said to have modeled his career on that of his uncle marius.
who is our marius? i point to roosevelt -- a man who took crisis (first depression, then war) and the associated widespread fear as a lever to power just as marius did. in fighting first jurgutha and then the cimbri and teutons, marius saved the state -- just as roosevelt is often said to have in fighting world war two. roosevelt was, as marius had been, the first to run for terms exceeding all proscriptions of tradition. they shared the common touch as well -- roosevelt somewhat more contrivedly so, being an american noble, but no less vociferously a man of the people.
notably, it was roosevelt who so boldly assaulted the limitations of the constitution upon his office. he first threatened to eviscerate the supreme court by packing it -- and then, thwarted, simply outlasted its justices, appointing over the course of years a court that rubber-stamped much of his socialist-influenced legislative program. the precedents of those years opened the way to a much-expanded role for the executive branch, diminishing by consequence both the congress and the court. it wasn't long before congress lost irrevocably to the presidency the power to declare war; soon after, as was shown in the vietnam years, they had more quietly begun to lose the power of the purse.
is has been 59 years since roosevelt died. the current day shows how far the trends he crystallized, perpetuated unevenly but steadily since, have brought us from the measured american aristocratic republic of the 19th century. the executive administration, with complete authority over a powerful standing army, invades foreign nations at will -- with congressional obsequiousness driven by the understanding among unimportant legislators that they cannot stop a president now -- and locates the money in black budgets and nebulous appropriations rubber-stamped by congress and completely unaccountable to oversight. approval from the people -- being unsophisticated and primarily concerned with security and entertainment -- is manipulated by playing on the fears of those who believe they have much to lose and easily coerced, even after the fact, with propaganda concerning their safety.
what is our "war on terrorism" if it is not that?
none of it is without precedent. many american political philosophers speak openly about america's destiny as a "new Rome". i wonder if they realize how apropos that comparison is.
for me, plato's criticism of democracy remains as relevant today as it was two millennia ago. the only question is where we stand in the spectrum as we run in fits and starts from democracy to tyranny.