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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 5 of a Series)

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The Fall of the Roman Republic: A Narrative and Analytical Comparison with the Contemporary Conditions of the United States of America — (Part 5 of a Series)

Derek Suszko

Derek Suszko is Associate Editor of The St. Croix Review

III. Analysis of the Roman and American Republics

Abstract

In the previous installments of this essay we presented a framework for the analysis of factional divisions within a political society, and defined the conditions necessary for a possible alteration of a reigning elite minority faction. Recall that this term (which will be abbreviated EMF) refers to the exclusive faction of persons who retain determinative cultural and political power within a state. The EMF of the late Roman republic included most of the senators and the dissolute aristocracy; the EMF of the present American republic is represented by the leftwing coastal “establishment” that includes politicians, activists, high-ranking businessmen, and cultural figures. The strength of an EMF depends on the perceived immutability of its power justification. All EMFs claim some basis for their authorities and the degree to which they persuade or compel citizens within a state to accept their sanction is the test of their immutability. In republican states, the basic immutable principles are the contractual obligations of constitutional government and the right of citizens to freely determine their rulers by participation in elections. Violations of the integrity of these conditions by the senate of the late Roman republic induced Roman citizens to reject the republican principles as illegitimate, and led to the overthrow of the EMF in favor of a military dictatorship. The breakdown of republican immutability in the Roman republic was instigated not merely by incidences of tyrannical overreach (though these became increasingly common in the last decades of the republic) but by the gradual recognition that the aristocratic EMF would venture arbitrary authorities in perpetuity (under the guise of “republicanism”) to preclude the possibility of diminutions to its power. The crucial revelation that determined the course of the Roman state was that the corrosion of the republican government could not be remedied by republican means. The purpose of this installment is to assess whether this is the proper forecast for the American republic. The plan for this portion of the essay is as follows: firstly, we conclude the comparison of the Roman and American factional compositions from Part IV. We then offer an analysis of the possibility for success of a right-wing populist movement in American politics within the framework and the line of inquiry presented in the foregoing discussion. The analysis is intended not only to offer a predictive model for the future development of American politics but also to present a strategic anticipation of the impediments to a successful right-wing populist movement.

Analysis of the Factional Composition of the Roman and American Republics (continued)

In the previous installment we noted a crucial discrepancy between the Roman and American republics in the allocation of suffrage. The Roman republic retained for its whole history a system of contingent suffrage, whereby the right to vote was awarded on the basis of an individual citizen’s utility to societal function and his ability to potentially enforce his privilege by force. The vote was never regarded by the Romans as an inherent right as it is in modern republics. The American republic (and its global imitators) persists on the principle of an essentially universal suffrage in which nearly all adult citizens are given the right to vote. This difference is the largest factor in explaining the relative ease with which the populist movement of the late Roman republic dissolved the majoritarian coalition of the aristocratic EMF. In a system of contingent suffrage, voting is inevitably more rational and directly associated with practical considerations of voter self-interest. But in a system of universal suffrage large segments of voters may be uninformed, unintelligent, or so removed from any practical grasp of the consequences of policy that they are motivated by apparently irrational considerations. Such a large population of non-rational participants creates opportunities for an EMF that intends to retain power by other means than competency. In the present American republic, the leftist EMF retains the loyalties of large segments of the non-rational electorate by means of emotional propaganda and the authority of social consensus (i.e., political correctness) regardless of the observably destructive consequences of their policies.1 The Gracchan populist movement was able to create a majoritarian opposition to the aristocratic EMF by clearly presenting the rational considerations in play for the various Roman middle-class factions. But such a straightforward method is not possible in the American republic where so many factional motivations are not identifiably rational. Economic self-interest was effectively the only real driver of political allegiance in the Roman republic. But for American factions this is only one consideration among many other cultural and social motives. We might refer to the ideological motivations of American leftists (i.e., a sense of historic guilt, the desire for an equitable justice system, and the proliferation of multiculturalism) as “soft” motives because they emanate not from a dispassionate examination of the practical effects on society but rather serve as a kind of “virtue currency” that allows the voter to project high social status within the elite factional in-group. The real sincerity of “soft” motives is difficult to assess because it is not clear how much, if any, diminution in living standard would induce a given voter to abandon them in favor of more rational considerations. It is evident that many affluent leftists are quite willing to accept seemingly irrational developments like higher tax burden, high crime rates, and (in the case of white voters) professional and academic discrimination, in exchange for the social benefits of openly advocating the causes of the EMF.

The effectiveness of leftist propaganda has obscured the central fact that the real beneficiaries of leftist policies are those at the “poles” of the economic and social hierarchy: that is, the very poor and the criminally deviant (who receive welfare and lenient treatment) and the members of the ideological elite class (who are able to redirect resentment at imaginary “oppressors” and reap the greatest share of the benefits). This is consistent with the history of Marxist regimes, nearly all of which came to power by inciting the “lower” classes to forcibly seize and eradicate the wealth and livelihood of the independent “middle” classes. Marxist interpretations of the late Roman republic have blundered enormously (perhaps by intentional obfuscation) because they fail to recognize that the Roman electorate did not include a lower-class element. The uprising against the senatorial faction was the combined work of Rome’s smallholders, the equites, and eventually the landholders among the Italian “allies.” Taken together these groups represent the Roman “middle” class. Ideally the course for an effective resistance movement in the United States would follow the same pattern of “consolidation of the middle” but the trajectory is muddled by the presence of the aforementioned “social and cultural” considerations. It is clear that the construction of a possible majoritarian consensus opposed to the American EMF cannot be exclusively economic in justification. It must take on the cultural elements that have long animated the “forgotten” voters of the right-wing base. The objective for the right-wing populist movement in America must be to purge the support of the EMF among the “middle classes” as far as possible and maintain a coalition of those who have much to lose by economic deterioration, and little advantage to gain from allegiance to the social ideologies of the EMF. The margins, however, are far slimmer than in the Roman republic. The American urban lower classes are enthusiastic supporters of the American EMF, and their voting power is substantial. The EMF has made up for its lack of competency by awarding loyal factions with substantial allocations of public money. This cannot be done indefinitely, and it remains to be seen which of the factions (if any) will ebb away from establishment allegiance when the economic conditions become sufficiently prohibitive.

The Possibility of a Right-Wing Populist Ascendancy in American Politics and the Creation of a New Political Elite

In the general overview of the conditions for an alteration in EMFs in Part IV we presented a list of questions that are predictive of the likelihood of success for an opposition movement that seeks to topple the reigning conditions imposed by an elite minority faction. We present them here and proceed to apply each in turn to the future politics of the American republic. The five questions are as follows:

Is the majoritarian coalition under the EMF insurmountable?

What are the highest immutable principles that hold the coalition together?

Which of the subsidiary factions are most amenable to persuasion?

What general conditions might compel the factional coalition to disintegrate?

Can the populist movement provoke the EMF to venture blatant instances of arbitrary power?

Question 1: Is the Majoritarian Coalition Under the Established EMF Insurmountable?

Though the answer to this question in the year 2023 is no, a number of sobering trends indicate that it may soon be yes. Since 1988 the Republican candidate for the presidency has won the popular vote just once in eight election cycles.2 Some commentators are already beginning to speculate that the Trump victory of 2016 represented an aberration, a kind of “last gasp” of the old American electorate. It is much too early to assess whether such an assertion is true, but the plausibility of the thesis would be greatly enhanced should the Republican candidate lose the election of 2024, and especially so if the loss should come against a cadaverous incumbent. Many Trump supporters have alleged widespread voting fraud to explain the loss of 2020, but the reality of the American political situation is that every demographic trend is moving in favor of the Democrat party of established power. In generational trends, the reliably conservative voters of the “Greatest Generation” are dying off, while the aggregate leanings of both “Millennials” (the generation emerging into middle age) and “Generation Z” (the generation entering the voting ranks) are reliably leftist. The situation with Millennials is particularly concerning because they are not demonstrating “the rightward drift” of previous generations entering middle age. The aggregate politics of immigrant voters (legal or otherwise) is decisively leftist since most can claim some degree of “oppressed minority” status and frequently become dependent on the government for welfare.3 It is unclear how much of Democrat “diversity” support is due to legitimate ideological affinities. To cite an example of an apparent discrepancy: conservative commentators are fond of pointing out the “traditional beliefs” of catholic Hispanics, though this has rarely led to appreciable Republican support among that demographic at the national level. Perhaps the Republican rhetoric on immigration (which notwithstanding is not as decisive as it ought to be) outweighs any affinities in values. But in truth the Republican party of the last 40 years has been so impotent and inadequate in improving the lives of its supporters that we cannot rule out the possibility that a far more assertive conservative movement would surmount the apparently unassailable advantages of the established power among traditionally-inclined minority voters.

Question 2: What Are the Highest Immutable Principles that Hold the Coalition of the Reigning EMF Together?

Though it is accurate to suggest that contemporary leftist ideological dogmas are essentially Marxist in orientation, the serpentine development of many of the immutable principles of leftism can be traced back to ideas originating in the Enlightenment. No major philosopher of the European Enlightenment would condone the degeneracy and collective neuroticism to which modern Western societies have sunk, but the unanticipated implications of their ideas are inextricably linked to modern societal outcomes. Essentially the Enlightenment project was the erasure of hierarchy as far as it could be done, and the deification of individual freedom and autonomy. The inaugural metaphysical principle of classical liberalism is the idea that the human mind begins in a tabula rasa condition and that it is infinitely malleable with no natural impediments. All Enlightenment thinkers from Locke to Kant to Jefferson emphasized what was common to all humans at the expense of what distinguished them. Enlightenment idealism led directly to the even more damaging “social progressivism” of the 19th century that insisted all human behavior was socially conditioned and could be remedied by improved social policies. All of these intellectual trends developed into principles of modern leftism: Criminals are societal victims and not moral agents; there are no natural differences in intelligence, physical abilities, and psychological trajectories among different ethnic groups; an individual’s declared identity must be respected by society as that person’s “truth”; all persons should have equal political rights; “oppression” has moral merit. The excess egalitarianism of modern leftism necessitates incessant denials of readily observable facts such as biological sex, crime rates among socially differentiated groups, objective standards of intelligence, and incompatible cultural standards. The tepidness of American conservatism of the last four decades is largely explainable by the fact that it shares many of the presumptions of classical liberalism without recognizing that the full implications culminate in leftism. The truth is that the progressive EMF will always have the advantage so long as the conservative opposition clings to the false idealism of “enlightened” liberalism. A proper right-wing opposition movement must insist on the immutability of hierarchy, morality, and competence, in defiance of the illusory idealism promoted by the EMF.

Question 3: Which of the Subsidiary Factions of the Established Coalition Are Most Amenable to Persuasion?

In Part III of this essay we spoke of the perils of enlarging a factional coalition to include factions that undermine the basic objectives and principles of a political movement. This caution must be constantly weighed against the manifest need of the movement to expand the scope of its factional adherence. The delicate task for an American right-wing populist movement is to enlarge the coalition as far as possible without compromising the immutable principles underlying the movement’s purpose. In examining the current subsidiary factions of both the Democrat establishment coalition and the “centrist” cluster of so-called swing voters, independents and moderates, a number of interesting aspects emerge. The essential rural/urban divide remains the dominant narrative of American political polarity, but a more probing examination of subsidiary factors reveals that this divide may be a symptom and not a cause of the polarity. We hardly have the scope to offer a thoroughgoing analysis of the myriad factional divisions, but we can demonstrate the manner of inquiry by examining two mega-factions among the American electorate: women and “non-white” voters.4 It has long been a paradox obscured by custom that women, as a plurality in modern democratic states, should so consistently favor the endangering social policies of leftist ideologies over the striving for moral and social order offered by the conservative alternatives. Various theories have been suggested to explain the leftward arc of women’s suffrage over time, but the truth of the matter in American politics is easily discernible from the isolation of two basic variables: race and marital status. Consider the following statistics from the midterm election of 2022, all of which follow trends that have persisted for decades:

                                          Percent Democrat vote           Percent Republican vote

Unmarried men                45                                            53

Unmarried women           68                                            31

Married men                     39                                            59

Married women                42                                            56

The outstanding takeaway from this chart is the whopping difference in factional allegiance between unmarried and married women. Married men move only 6 points to Republican preference compared to unmarried men, but married women move a staggering 25 points from Democrat to Republican preference. One might be tempted to regard these demographics as static populations (i.e., the women who are single remain single across decades) but the truth is that the aggregate trends are consistent not only across all age groups but also for discrepancies in previous marital status (i.e., divorced women move leftwards and women who remarry move rightwards). The presence of children is a correlative factor but not so stark as the simple determinant of marital status. The obvious conclusion is that the social condition of “being married” is the largest predictor of a rightward factional conversion for women. Here again the general demographic tendencies favor the leftist EMF, as marriage rates have crashed in the last two decades. This is almost certainly by design, as the establishment power is hardly oblivious to the fact that unmarried women frequently become dependent on the state and its benefits.5 Despite their fidelity to the establishment ideologies, unmarried women remain among the most dissatisfied and depressed social demographics with astronomical rates of mental health diagnoses and neurological prescriptions. The leftward tilt of women in the electorate would be substantially reduced if more of them were married because so many married women are highly amenable to factional alteration. It must be a central ambition of a conservative populist movement to create the proper social incentives to reverse the declining marriage trends if it is to have any hope of assembling an enduring majoritarian coalition.

If the mega-faction of “women” demonstrates oscillating factional allegiances subject to altering social conditions the situation of “minority voters” is altogether different. Minority voters demonstrate overwhelming allegiance to the established power regardless of any isolating variables. The long-standing Republican strategic obsession with penetrating the ranks of minority voters has never materialized into appreciable support. This despite the endless pandering and concessions offered by the Republicans for exclusively minority interests and issues.6 The truth is that many minority voters retain perspectives that are at odds with the principles of a genuinely conservative movement. Republicans often smugly remark that blacks are overwhelmingly the victims of black crime as though this observation might produce an epiphany for black voters and cause them to abandon their traditional Democrat support. It does not because the racial consciousness of American blacks is so pervasive (due largely to incessant propaganda) that the majority will identify with fellow blacks against the perceived “white society” regardless of individual conduct. A viable right-wing populist coalition must make the sobering admission that blatant courting of overt minority interests compromises the integrity of the movement, and that specified racial rhetoric of any kind is inherently a hallmark tactic of the progressive EMF.

Question 4: What General Conditions Might Compel the Factional Coalition to Disintegrate?

Historians of the United States have identified various “realignments” over the course of American electoral history that have induced seismic shifts in the factional allegiance of voting demographics. The 20th century had two major realignments: the first was provoked by the economic hardship of the Great Depression and saw black and white working voters abandon the increasingly corporate party of Lincoln in favor of the New Deal relief policies of the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. This created a decisive majoritarian coalition for the Democrats that allowed them to win seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1968. The second realignment was provoked by the social and cultural disruptions of the Civil Rights movement and the turbulent politics of the 1960s, and saw the majority of southern voters reject the Democrat party for the first time in American history in favor of the Republicans. The Republican factional coalition of corporate interests and social conservatives dominated the electorate from 1968 to 1992 with Republican candidates winning five of six presidential elections in the period.7 Both of these realignments illustrate the disorienting influence of unforeseen and climactic events on the maintenance of a political status quo. The current EMF plays a dangerous game to maintain its majoritarian support by constructing an economy that borrows against the future to maximize its scope in the present. The leftist economic policies are breeding grounds for future recessions because they disincentivize savings and foster unprecedented inefficiencies. The prospect of economic fallout from progressive economic policies has accelerated the faction’s urgency to embed leftist cultural propaganda into as many citizens as possible. Fundamentally the EMF must convince enough subsidiary factions that reductions in living standards are preferable to shifting allegiances to the “fascistic” American right. But it is not at all clear which factional demographics will stay loyal to the propaganda, and which might revolt in the instance of economic decline. The prospect of leftist policy failure remains the greatest hope for the emergence of a right-wing populist movement, but it still is fraught with uncertainties. Only in conditions far worse than those of the present will the true persuasive power of the leftist propaganda efforts become fully apparent.

Question 5: Can the Populist Movement Provoke the EMF to Venture Blatant Instances of Arbitrary Power?

Perhaps the most decisive factor in determining the course of the late Roman republic was the escalating measure of arbitrary power ventured by the senatorial EMF against the populist movement and its leaders. We shall have more to say about “arbitrary power” in our discussion of the fourth cause of the republic’s collapse, but for now it is enough to note that any sufficiently blatant show of arbitrary power necessarily destroys the equilibrium of republican immutability. The Roman senatorial faction attempted to justify its oppression and murder of the Gracchi as necessary reactions to treason, but this was unconvincing set against the relative propriety of the brother tribunes. Accusations against the aggressive tactics of the tribune Saturninus were more persuasive, as were condemnations of the legitimately unprecedented enfranchisement policies of Drusus. The true blunder of the Roman EMF was the elevation and endorsement of Sulla whose defiance of constitutional norms and blatant power plays destroyed forever the dwindling notion that the Roman aristocracy stood for selfless republicanism and not their own privileges. The American EMF is excessively fond of proclaiming itself as the “protector of democracy” and portraying the conservative opposition as intent on terminating democratic government. Such assertions are hardly credible given the corruption and patronage of the Democrat establishment, the political persecution of undesirable conservative groups, and the dubious voting practices promoted by party machinators. But the use of arbitrary power is more significant for the perception it spawns than the mere fact that it has occurred, and the EMF need not fear retribution if the general perception of the conduct is favorable. Thus, the EMF is able to carry on with the deplorable treatment of the January 6 protestors, many of whom were denied basic rights, like legal representation and speedy trials, because the public does not generally perceive the unfairness as objectionable. But the established power cannot help itself from sliding interminably leftward, and Democrats are now openly suggesting policies of forcible gun confiscation, and custody seizure of the children of ideologically uncooperative parents. Such acts, should they come, cannot be disguised as “upholding democracy.” They are blatant displays of tyrannical power, and conservatives should encourage the Democrats to pursue them, for only by the demonstration of such conduct will they incite the necessary enthusiasm for an aggressive opposition movement.

(This essay will be continued in the next issue)

Notes

1There are myriad examples of the deleterious practical consequences of leftist policy implementation, but none more dramatic than the decline of American cities. The cognitive dissonance evident in affluent Democrat voters who flee to the suburbs (and sometimes from blue states entirely) to avoid the appalling conditions of progressive cities, and yet continue to support candidates and platforms that exacerbate those conditions is a well-observed phenomenon among conservative commentators.

2The single instance was in 2004 when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry with 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Kerry’s 48.3 percent. The largest popular vote margin for a Democrat victory in the time span was achieved by Barack Obama in 2008 who defeated John McCain by 7 points: 52.9 percent to 45.7 percent.

3The most dismaying aspect of this trend is that even the “upper middle class” immigrant groups vote overwhelmingly Democrat. This fact is a damning testament to the persuasive power of leftist racial narratives, for these groups generally get nothing from Democrat policies besides increased tax burden, worsening schools and dangerous streets, though it is true that some demographics might occasionally benefit from favorable discriminatory practices (though east Asians are increasingly classed with whites and subject to unfavorable discrimination).

4It is highly instructive to consider the outcomes of American elections if only “X” demographic voted. In the presidential election of 2020 if only women voted Biden would have defeated Trump 467 to 71 in the electoral college. Unsurprisingly if only “non-white” women voted the tally would have been 538 to 0 for Biden. However, if only white women voted Trump would have defeated Biden 327 to 211. The same statistics for men are as follows: only men, Trump 350 to Biden 158; only non-white men, 538 Biden to Trump 0; only white men, Trump 493 to Biden 45.

5This includes not only social welfare and public administrative jobs (the majority of which are held by women) but also access to abortion, contraceptives, and favorable discriminatory practices in the legal system.

6Trump’s disastrous First Step Act was an example piece of legislation that was promoted by black groups, supported by Democrats, and signed into law, and led to no discernible acquisition of black support for Republicans.

7There has been a push among some conservative commentators to suggest that the parties did not “switch” in the 1960s, and that the Democrats have essentially remained consistent in their political orientation from the time of slavery to the present. While the matter is somewhat nuanced, any suggestion of a pure continuity in ideological outlook is fanciful revisionism. The white southern population has always been the most socially conservative segment of American society, and if they were once amenable to the “progressive” economics put forth by early 20th century Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, it should only serve to illustrate how bizarre the recent factional alliance of elite corporate interests and social conservatives really is.     *

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