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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 7 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 7 of a Series)

Derek Suszko

Derek Suszko is the associate editor for The St. Croix Review

Abstract

In previous installments of this essay, we discussed the first three causes of the collapse of the Roman republic and analyzed their affinities to the political situation of the present American republic. Recall that the three causes discussed in previous installments were as follows:

  1. The pollution of the Roman legislative function arising from legislative obsolescence and the corrupt interference of the Roman senatorial elite (see Part 3).
  2. The apathy and criminality of the Roman elite minority faction (EMF) and its refusal to relinquish determinative power or fulfill the remedial demands of a majoritarian electorate (see Parts 4 and 5).
  3. The neglect of the grievances of the necessary faction of the Roman legionaries and the legionaries’ subsequent investment in a politics of populist insurgency (see Part 6).1

In the next two installments we will deal with the fourth and final cause of the collapse of the Roman republic: the escalatory effects caused by the exercise of arbitrary power. The fourth cause differs from the first three in that it was not preliminary to the onset of crisis conditions; rather, it was a consequence of the attempts by the Roman EMF to override by unlawful force the problems implicit in the three preliminary causes. The plan for this installment of the essay is as follows. First, we complete our discussion of factions by discussing the concept of an “undecided” or “black box” faction and its implications for factional politics. With this final piece in place for our overview of factions, we discuss the idea of arbitrary power in republican systems. After presenting the idea of arbitrary power in general terms, we apply our observations to the specific conditions of the Roman and American republics. Finally, we speculate on the possible implications of our considerations of arbitrary power for the future political course of the United States.

Cause IV: The Escalatory Effects Caused by the Exercise of Arbitrary Power

The “Black Box” Faction

In our discussion of factional politics, we have thus far maintained an implicitly broad definition of faction. A faction is to be understood, here and throughout this essay, as any division of the population based on specified criteria. Thus, strictly speaking, any division of a population, appropriately specified, can be said to represent a faction, no matter how frivolous or inconsequential the distinction (i.e., fans of a specific sports team). The meaningfulness of a faction depends on whether its distinguishing factor is predictive or correlative with the aggregate political associations of the factional group. As we have seen, factors such as sex, race, marital status, urban/rural residency, age and economic status all reveal pluralities of political preference. The greater the factional discrepancy between opposite groups, the more justified we are in claiming that the factor is determinative for political preference (i.e., the 25-point discrepancy in Democrat vs. Republican allegiance among unmarried and married women, respectively, indicates that the condition of “being married” is a major determinant of political leanings among women). In the previous installment of this essay, we considered the disproportionate influence of necessary factions on the political orientation of states, and endorsed a strategy of manufacturing a necessary faction within an insurgent coalition by advocacy of incentive policies. For the purposes of our discussion, we have maintained a general assumption that factional motivation is rational or, at least, explicable. Individual voters may give allegiance to a faction or coalition on the basis of ideological affinity, economic self-interest, or social prestige. Each of these motives is identifiable, and where they might be in conflict (as in the case of affluent leftists) we can easily assess which motive overrides the other on the basis of aggregate preference. But there remains a class of voters whose motivations are undefinable and amorphous and resist easy analysis. In American political discourse, such a group is often collectively referred to as “undecided” or “swing” voters, and their possible numbers and influence are the source of much speculation. In the context of our factional analysis, we will define this group as the “black box” faction because the motivations of its individual members are impossible to generalize or meaningfully assess. The reasons for individual voters falling into the category of “undecided” are myriad: Total apathy or ignorance of politics, a fickle hubris that disdains affiliation, or a genuine difficulty in reconciling the trade-offs inherent to coalition allegiance.2 Taken together, this oscillating group with no consistent factional allegiance may represent anywhere from 2 to 20 percent of an overall voting electorate. In times of hyper partisanship, the size of the “black box” faction will necessarily be smaller; but no matter its size, the “black box” faction inevitably retains an outsized importance in a two-party, winner-take-all electoral system. This is because a two-party system always aggregates into two large factional coalitions, each short of sustained majoritarian dominance.3 The “black box” faction acts as a permanent tipping-point between nearly equally divided partisan coalitions. Thus, like the necessary factions of the previous installment, the “black box” faction maintains an influence in a two-party system out of proportion to its numbers.

While the motivations of the members of “black box” factions are too myriad to generalize, we can readily observe the consequences of the existence of such factions to political conditions. In the absence of strong ideological convictions, or readily perceived benefits to self-interest, the individual voter will be highly susceptible to dominant narratives, and thus to the propaganda of the established power. We may cite as a general principle of human nature that men (and women) are never readier to blend into the invisible crowd than when they persist in a state of indifference. The “black box” or “unaffiliated” faction always serves in aggregate to the advantage of the ruling elite minority faction because the EMF exercises narrative control and the perception of consensus.4 A political coalition which seeks to supplant an EMF has the handicap of being disruptive or unfamiliar to a perceived normal order, and so is at a distinct disadvantage among the “undecided” segment of the electorate (i.e., those voters content enough to be essentially apathetic to political conditions). An inevitable strategy of any ruling EMF attempting to denigrate an effective opposition movement is to slander it as “radical” or “extreme.” This is seen vividly in the ongoing American EMF response to the “MAGA movement” of Trump supporters. This kind of propaganda makes no attempt to deal with matters of voter self-interest or passion, but relies solely on a nebulous appeal to “normalcy.” It is aimed at those voters who have vague or contradictory voting motives, and who are thus susceptible to received political framing. Since in any state (republican or otherwise) the narratives given out by the EMF will have the most prominence, it is inevitable that undecided voters will have greater exposure, and thus greater comfort, with the political framing of the EMF. So long as the EMF can retain its dominance over narrative control, the “black box” faction remains an advantageous segment of the electorate to them. The challenge for an opposition movement is to uncover methods for loosening EMF narrative dominance. Before we consider such methods, however, it is necessary to consider the question of arbitrary power in republican systems.

The Exercise of Arbitrary Power in Republican Governments

We have declared in a previous installment that the exercise of arbitrary power is far less consequential in fact than in perception. By arbitrary power, we refer to any exercise of power that is in violation of constitutionally prescribed authorities. In republican systems, this can take the form of a constitutional authority assuming powers prohibited to it or explicitly assigned to another constitutional authority (i.e., the American president cannot declare war on behalf of the nation without consent of Congress) or a non-constitutional authority assuming powers explicitly given to constitutional authorities (i.e., a federal bureaucracy cannot pass legislation on its own initiative). Though the definition is quite unambiguous, nearly all exercises of arbitrary power in republican systems are justified by claims of constitutional sanction, however dubious. It is the nature of human power to attempt to justify itself by all means possible and to seek as great a scope as possible (i.e., all men would be tyrants if they could). The ultimate legitimacy of any exercise of power rests more on the persuasiveness of its appeal than on the objective legal fact of its overreach. In American history, nearly all strong presidents have violated the Constitution, some quite overtly.5 The ability to safely deploy arbitrary power in republican systems rests on whether the deploying coalition has a “mandate”; that is, a sufficient popularity among the electorate to justify the appeal of extraordinary authorities. Naturally, there are always some limits to power in republican systems (i.e., the American president cannot suspend an election, though even this step was briefly considered by Lincoln and his cabinet during the Civil War), but a political coalition with a true mandate can stretch the limits of a republican constitution to a considerable degree without meaningful backlash. All this is to say that the mere incidence of an exercise of arbitrary power is often a moot point; power will stretch itself as far as it can without fracturing its popular sanction. An exercise of arbitrary power is of decisive importance, however, when it alters perceptions among the electorate. Repeated exercises of arbitrary power by an EMF that seeks to illegally combat the advances of an opposition movement (and not to benefit a legitimate political mandate) culminate not only in the delegitimization of the EMF, but also very often in the breakdown of the republican system itself.

Recall that we defined EMFs as factions wielding determinative power over a state with the unique factional motive of retaining power. In modern states, republican and otherwise, EMFs are nearly all ideological in nature; they justify their claims to legitimate power on the basis of having correct ideas. But very often, ruling EMFs find themselves in the position of having to balance ideological pressures from the constituent groups of their coalition with objective assessments of the best means for staying in power.6 We may refer to this delicate management of ideological imperatives with practical reality as policy pacing. An EMF that desires to bring an ideological demand of one of its constituent factions into the mainstream will have to lay the groundwork with considerable propaganda efforts, sometimes aimed at its own constituent factions. Insofar as these efforts are successful, it will then be able to advance the policy easily without concern for negative effects to coalition allegiance. Policy pacing that occurs too rapidly can lead to coalition disintegration (i.e., the revolutionary civil rights legislation of the 1960s led to the loss of the white Southern faction for the Democrats, and led to a 24-year period of Republican dominance in presidential elections). But policy pacing that occurs too slowly will yield to an insurgent platform more resolute in ideological commitment (i.e., the Whig party evaporated in the 1850s because of its sluggish approach to the slavery issue, and was replaced as a national party by the openly anti-slavery Republicans). Fundamentally, the EMF desires to move at the pace most congenial for both maintaining the loyalty of its ideological constituents and the comfortability of its hold on power. But the rise of an opposition movement that has achieved the necessary factional clarification (that is, it has formulated a coalition without contradictory factions capable of presenting a clear and formidable challenge to EMF policy) represents a major disruption to EMF policy pacing. Naturally, the EMF will always wish to undermine an opposition by covert means, but this cannot be done when the political fault lines are exposed with overt clarity, and the opposition electorate is no longer persuadable by nominal concessions.7 It is at this point that the EMF must move into more over-handed means of combating the threat to its hold on determinative power. Since the factional clarification achieved by the opposition has generated conditions of hyper partisanship, there is little to be gained in attempting to propagandize on the basis of unity or commonality. Rather, the EMF must consolidate the support of its existing coalition of factions and attempt to firmly secure the remnant elements of the “black box” faction by appealing to the radical and dangerous nature of the opposition movement. But in fostering the idea that the opposition movement represents a grave and lethal threat to “normal” conditions, the EMF inevitably radicalizes its own coalition against the apparently imminent danger of the threat. The EMF is then pressured to venture exercises of arbitrary power to deal with even slight demonstrations of the success of the opposition.8 The EMF hopes that the effectiveness of propaganda coupled with the cowing effects of force are adequate enough to fizzle the determination of serious opposition. But if it does not break the determination of the opposition coalition, it may be necessary for the EMF to suspend all pretense of republican process and attempt to remove the chance of a power reversal by all means necessary. This, in turn, causes the resolute factions of the opposition coalition to reject the validity of republican process altogether (since the ruling EMF is no longer abiding by it) and take the chance of power by means of force. The republican process is then broken, and political resolution can only come about by the subduing of one coalition or the other. When political passions reach a certain pitch of partisanship, we can speak of an inherent and inevitable escalatory effect to any blatant exercise of arbitrary power. Nearly all historical republics have collapsed because of the escalatory effects of this cycle, but it is not necessarily fatal for a republican system. There are many cases where the republican equilibrium is broken but then repaired after conclusive hostilities (i.e., the American Civil War, or the Algerian mutiny of 1958 in the French Fourth Republic).

The Inducement to Arbitrary Power as a Strategy of Insurgent Politics

Generally, the success of EMF deployment of arbitrary powers against a serious opposition movement is entirely dependent on the consequences to the perceptions of the majoritarian electorate. All EMFs would venture arbitrary power if they knew they would suffer no negative effects to favorability among the populace. But overt displays of questionable power are naturally disturbing to republican populations, regardless of factional allegiance, and all EMFs risk considerable loss of prestige by indulging in them. This is especially true among the “black box” faction, whose members lack clear ideological convictions, but are fickly sensitive to any perceived violations to “normal order.” While EMF propaganda may blunt sympathies for an opposition movement among its own factional constituents, it will have less force among the “undecided” or “uninformed” segment of the electorate, which may be perturbed by EMF displays of overt and questionable subjugation. We spoke above about the advantages of narrative control wielded by EMFs; the dominant propaganda perspective in any state will always be that of the established power. But an EMF never has total control over political narratives. An EMF facing the prospect of overthrow or curtailment must prioritize dispensing with a short-term political threat at the expense of the careful cultivation of its long-term legitimacy. An insurgent movement that can force an EMF to venture overreaches of power damaging to long-term legitimacy, disrupts both the power of the EMF to wield narrative control and its power to dictate policy pacing. We will refer to this capability as the initiative of provocation. An insurgent politics of sufficient consolidation (that is, we assume it has achieved necessary factional clarification) retains initiative in goading an EMF into excessive action by means of both rhetorical and escalatory provocation.9 Some of this provocation can be spontaneous and essentially unforeseen (i.e., the 1789 storming of the Bastille, or the January 6 demonstrations), but an insurgent movement may also goad the EMF into excessive retaliatory action by deliberate strategy. The aim of such provocation is to induce the EMF to engage in excessive retaliation that discredits its legitimacy, most crucially among the “undecided” or non-ideological block of the electorate. Like the methods of guerilla warfare, in which an outnumbered force deploys feint attacks, deception and surprise strikes to demoralize a disproportionate enemy, the methods of insurgent provocation represent a kind of guerilla politics. Shut out of the ability to alter policy or wield narrative control by normative means, an insurgent movement can nonetheless chip away at the legitimacy of a ruling EMF by provocative action. Before we proceed to analyze these ideas in the context of the Roman and American republics, we must offer a brief, general view of the methods of provocation available to an insurgent opposition movement.

The two primary means by which an EMF delegitimizes itself is by 1) excessive deployments of powers perceived as arbitrary and 2) excessive acquiescence to extreme ideological imperatives of constituent factions. The aim of an insurgent movement is to goad an EMF into actions of these kinds. Naturally, the most straightforward way for an insurgent movement to agitate an EMF is by increasing its support base. But, as is implicit in our analysis of the “black box” faction, there is generally a cap to the amount of support an opposition movement can securely acquire bereft of determinative power and narrative control. Thus, it may be necessary for the success of an insurgency to bait the EMF into blunders by provocative action. But how does an insurgent movement intentionally provoke the EMF into excessive measures? By targeting those EMF ideologies and anxieties that are most vulnerable to induce an irrational or excessive retaliation. It is in the nature of all ideologies to distort the nuanced truths of life in favor of dogmatic reassurance. This manifests not only in the unrestrained elevation of ideologically favored groups, but also in the demonization of those enemy factions perceived (justly or not) as posing the severest threat to the attainment of ideological aims. In the last installment of this essay, we spoke of the need for an insurgent platform to incentivize and sharpen the support of factions that would ultimately prove necessary for the stability and prosperity of the state. Similarly, an insurgent politics which seeks to provoke the EMF into self-wounding mistakes must elevate and emphasize those factions among its coalition with special powers to perturb the EMF or its ideological support factions. To identify such groups with the power to perturb, it is necessary to thoroughly understand the ideologies that undergird the EMF coalition. We need say nothing more in general terms about the methods related to the initiative of provocation. The methods cannot be satisfactorily elucidated in merely general terms, since every state has its own subjective circumstances. As we turn to our analyses of the Roman and American republics, we shall have specific case-studies to demonstrate the possibilities for insurgent provocation with concrete examples.

(This essay will be continued in the following issue).

Notes

  1. Previous installments of this essay can be read by visiting www.stcroixreview.com.
  2. In modern American politics, many “undecided voters” are assumed to be politically uninformed. But this is not necessarily the case. Genuine indecisiveness can be found among young intellectuals, who take it as a point of independent pride to stand apart from the political alignments determined by their elders. It can also be found among politically sophisticated suburbanites, who have to weigh the tangible costs of declining quality of urban life (by voting Democrat) with the potential for social ostracization or possible association with a “lower class” (by voting Republican).
  3. While it is true that a coalition can win a decisive majority in a handful of election cycles, the currents of two-party politics dictate that the coalitions will reach a gradual equilibrium as the minority coalition adapts to the orientation of a new electorate.
  4. We by no means intend to imply that all members of the “black box” faction fall prey to the persuasive pressures of establishment propaganda. As with our previous factional analysis, we are speaking about aggregate trends. In an electoral system like the American, there will always be “exceptions to the rule” since we are dealing, even among highly compartmentalized factions, with populations of millions.
  5. It would be exhaustive to merely list potential incidences of presidential violations of the Constitution, much less assess them, but among apparently blatant violations we might cite: Andrew Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling against the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forcibly relocated the southeastern native tribes; James Polk’s intentional goading of Mexico into a pretext to launch the Mexican-American War in 1846; Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the non-Confederate state of Maryland in 1861; Woodrow Wilson’s sponsorship and signing of the Sedition Act of 1918; Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of citizens of Japanese descent by executive order in 1942; Harry Truman’s forcible nationalization of the steel industry in 1952; Lyndon Johnson’s advocacy for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution after intentional goading of North Vietnam in 1964; Richard Nixon’s deployment of the “plumbers” to use illegal methods to stop press leaks; and Ronald Reagan’s tacit consent for weapons sales to Iran in violation of standing treaty in the Iran-Contra affair. Notice that each of these unconstitutional actors is among the most consequential and admired of American presidents.
  6. For the American EMF, the policy of reparations for blacks is rapidly becoming a pressure issue. The black faction that is so crucial for the Democrat coalition is pushing it on ideological grounds, but there is not yet a strong enough support base for the Democrats to adopt it into their national platform.
  7. In the Roman republic, the senatorial EMF was for many decades able to completely neutralize the opposition of the tribunate by secret manipulation of the nomination procedures of the concilium plebis. Similarly, the American EMF is able to cauterize the bulk of the Republican “opposition” by bribery, blackmail, and social intimidation. Witness the outgoing Kevin McCarthy, who, in exchange for rehabilitation and a hefty lobbyist salary, will follow Paul Ryan in the media role of the “good” Republican.
  8. This whole sequence is obviously applicable to the unprecedented and overwhelming persecution of Trump after his election in 2016. The American EMF propagandized hysterically that Trump represented “the end of democracy” and deployed extraordinary and arbitrary powers to curtail him through dubious impeachment proceedings, frivolous legal persecutions, and possibly fraudulent electioneering. Trump’s supporters also faced displays of arbitrary power. The EMF dogged major Trump acolytes with dubious prosecutions, and participants in the January 6 demonstrations were illegally withheld trial rights. Increasingly, the EMF may be willing to venture even harsher methods for suppressing the Trump opposition. Ashli Babbitt was the first, and will likely not be the last, citizen to suffer murder by the state for association with Trump and the growing populist movement he champions.
  9. If an opposition movement does not attempt to challenge or refute EMF narratives, we can safely assume that its coalition has not achieved factional clarification and is not yet a serious threat to EMF supremacy. As of 2024, the Republican Party as a whole can be described as ineffective opposition. Perhaps nothing portrays the stark discrepancy in assertiveness in messaging between the Democrat EMF and the impotent Republicans than the responses to the deaths of George Floyd and Ashli Babbitt. Floyd was immediately hailed by the Democrats as a saintlike martyr and the victim of a brutal racist system despite the fact that his death was due to drug overdose, and he had a history of violent felony convictions. By contrast, the Republicans (including Trump) declined to defend Babbitt at all. Rather, many Republicans propagated the Democrat framing of her death as justifiable.     *
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