As described last time in Part 1, the ancient Roman Republic descended into the autocracy of the Roman Empire little by little over many years. Old traditions were discarded, long-practiced norms were breached, ancient power-sharing institutions were neutered, social cohesion broke down, and a series of strongmen and demagogues resorted to dictatorship to restore order. By at least one theory, as much as anything else the demise of the Roman Republic resulted from the neglect of its citizens and political leaders to defend it.
No analogy, historical or otherwise, is ever completely apt and whether history repeats itself has long been a point of discussion. The Founders of our republic, however, must have thought there were lessons to be learned from history because, in addition to reading Locke, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, and others, they studied the Roman Republic and its failure. Many of the Founders could read the ancient sources in their original Latin and Greek and they used this research in crafting our own constitution.
In If We Can Keep It, How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might be Saved, journalist-author Michael Tomasky describes the broken politics of our own American Republic and offers some ideas to put things right again. Tomasky starts out by reminding us that political polarization is as American as apple pie. We have always been a politically quarrelsome lot, especially when discussing the relationship of the federal government to its citizens.
Tomasky points out, however, that in the past the quarreling was as much within parties as between them. American political parties historically grumbled and argued internally and were rarely if ever ideologically pure. Jeffersonians differed over foreign policy and the War of 1812, the Whigs held both pro- and anti-slavery views, Teddy Roosevelt frequently battled with his own Republicans over business and labor policies, and more recently, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats were an uneasy, if not unsavory, alliance of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists.
As long as our political parties were coalitions of views, though, differences were channeled and contained. Party platforms were hammered out (or papered over) so party candidates could run on the same ticket. Intra-party and bipartisan compromise was common. Then came the Great Depression and World War II, two seminal events that engendered a “we’re all this together” attitude that lingered (notwithstanding McCarthyism) into the Cold War threats of the 1950s. But that uncharacteristic era of relative comity ended with the 1960s.
Tomasky spends most of his book reviewing how we got from that mid-20th Century second “Era of Good Feelings” (the first was the early 1820s) to today’s toxic polarization. Younger readers might appreciate the review, but for anyone who has lived through events since the 1960s, this history is unforgettable. The 60s and succeeding decades brought us the civil rights movement and its backlash, political assassinations, counter-cultural iconoclasm, unwinnable wars, political scandals, no-tax pledges and mountains of debt, presidential impeachment, a disputed election, our first African-American president, and Trumpism—all events that steadily pushed Americans into a series of rigid political blocs.
The American people are now sliced and diced not only by politics, economics, race, and ethnicity but by where we live (city, suburb, or rural zip codes); what news we watch (Fox, CNN, MSNBC, or PBS); where we shop (Whole Foods, Walmart, or a local market); what kind of car we drive (Chevy or Lexus, Toyota or Mercedes, F-150 or Land Rover); how much education we have and where we got it (high school, community college, public or private university); what faith we follow (mainstream Protestant, conservative or liberal Catholic, various Jewish identities, evangelical fundamentalism, or something crudely classed as “other”—Latter-day Saints, Islam, Hinduism, indigenous American, or None). Tomasky even claims what we eat (kale or iceberg, vegan or carnivore, Bud Light or cabernet) is food for pollsters! (Pun intended.)
The problem according to Tomasky is that when parties to a political dispute also represent social, economic, religious, or racial groups, the disagreement becomes visceral. Compromise is not only impossible but viewed with contempt by one’s peers. As with ancient Rome, gridlocked political institutions, the flouting of civil and political norms, and a breakdown in social cohesion can lead to violence, demagoguery—and disaster.
In the last section of the book, Tomasky offers fourteen fixes to “keep our republic.” He suggests enlarging the size of the U.S. House of Representatives, expanding civics classes in our schools, and encouraging corporate leaders to take on more social responsibilities. He would also repeal the 1967 law mandating single member congressional districts so large states could draw regional multi-member districts to encourage candidates to appeal to a wider more centrist constituency than to a narrow gerrymandered set of voters. And of course finding a way to get rid of partisan gerrymandering is fundamental.
Tomasky’s most important and easiest-to-implement reform is ranked-choice voting (as Maine has done recently). This system lets voters rank candidates in order of preference, ensures a majority for the winner, makes every vote count, and reduces the influence of fringe candidates on electoral outcomes.
For those who want or need the history of political polarization with some ideas for improving our politics, this book is a valuable and refreshingly short no-nonsense review. For those who would rather cut to the chase and consider solutions, just read the last section for enough thought-provoking ideas to satisfy.
Nothing says the American Republic will live forever. As with much in life, neglect leads to rot and rot to collapse, and whether or not our republic is collapsing as Tomasky claims, we could all do well to reflect on Benjamin Franklin’s warning as the Constitutional Convention wrapped up its business. When asked if the meetings had produced a monarchy or a republic, the aged polymath supposedly answered, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
The books from Parts 1 and 2:
- If We Can Keep It, How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might be Saved by Michael Tomasky (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2019)
- Mortal Republic, How Rome Fell Into Tyranny by Edward J. Watts (Basic, 2018)
- SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2015)
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke