Can we learn from Rome’s experience?

EDITOR: The January 6th insurrection and other recent events makes this editorial from November 24, 2010 even more pertinent today.

History students can sense “déjà vu all over again”, in the words of the great Yankee catcher and manager, Yogi Berra. The Watchdog senses that the USA started to decline around 1992 with the election of Democrat Bill Clinton by a minority with almost 19% of the public voting for Ross Perot of the “United We Stand” political party, a movement with much in common with today’s “Tea Party.”

So where is the similarity to history? We need to go back to 137 B. C. when first Tiberius Gracchus, and then Gaius Gracchus, “stood in the center of the turmoil” that was largely of their own making. Until that time, the Roman Senate and other political institutions had conducted themselves with respect and adherence to its traditions, obeying its own rules and the decisions of the Roman Court. But during the successive administration of the brothers:

“Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus saw an opportunity not only to achieve their own political power, but to stabilize the inequality through reform and new laws benefiting the common people. Reasonable and noble concepts on the surface, however, were undermined by their own contempt for the Senate and opposite party. What could be seen on one side as an attempt to rectify a dangerous and debilitating social system was viewed on the other as nothing more than a power grab and a flagrant attack on the Republican institutional ideas of the time.

“One-upmanship was countered with arguments and these countered with physical force. As the results at stake grew, so did the egos of the individual players. The goal of the betterment of society as a whole was lost, and victory became the only objective. As ambition and personal motivation became the predominant theme of the Late Republic, the social fabric that long held Rome together, against all odds, was being torn apart.” Source: UNRV

Partisanship replaced compromise and conciliation.

The Roman Republic never recovered, but lurched from discord, to brutality, to murders, to harsh dictatorships, to civil war, and culminated with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, followed by the long and relatively benign rule of Caesar Augustus, the first and arguably the best of the Roman emperors.

In part because of the bitterness engendered by his minority mandate, President Bill Clinton was a target for spurious accusations from crook to murderer and ultimately was impeached by the House but fortunately not convicted by the Senate for what was considered by much of the world as a minor personal indiscretion.

Then came the ‘crowning’ of George W. Bush by a partisan Supreme Court that seemed to ignore the U. S. Constitution which mandates that disputed presidential elections be resolved by the House of Representatives by a vote of the majority of the states. (The Republicans had the necessary majority.)

Because the process was not allowed to follow its natural course and due to voting anomalies such as the Palm Beach, Florida “butterfly ballot” and wrongful disenfranchisement of thousands of valid Florida voters, a significant portion of the nation’s population did not accept “W” as a duly elected president until his second term. Even had his record during his first term in office not been so poor, President Bush would have been a target of much angst from disappointed and embittered Gore supporters.

Currently we have Barack Obama who is accused of not being a native born American and thus disqualified, of being a Muslim rather than a Christian, of being anti-American, and of being a socialist. Yet his health care initiatives are not much different than those of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower, testimony to how far to the right the Republican party has gravitated. (Eisenhower is quoted: “Two fundamental problems confront us: first, high and ever-rising costs of health services; second, serious gaps and shortages in these services.”)

During the same period the Senate and House have become excessively partisans to the point where the Republican Senate leader is on record that his party’s main goal is to destroy the Obama presidency. This was not just rhetoric, it was a politically successful practice over the past two years to thwart the historic give and take that takes place between parties in a republic.

At a time when the USA had squandered its unparallel world leadership and wealth as a result of unnecessary wars (Iraq alone has cost over three trillion dollars), mediocre health care which costs half again as much as for any other advanced nation, and subjected itself to monopolistic mergers and acquisitions that emasculated its industry and shipped jobs abroad, our legislative institutions have ceased to function on a basis of compromise and common purpose. Like Rome under the brothers Gracchi, ignorance and excessive partisanship have hobbled a once great republic. This week the hostilities by North Korea with potential for war brought home how the once vaunted U. S. is without military capacity and economic means to field an army to fulfill our treaty obligations to South Korea.

Is there any remedy, or is the descent irreversible? History may write that the last great chance occurred in the year 2008 with the election of a moderate Democrat of half African-American birth and extraordinary ability and promise. He was determined to find a way to (1) bring health care to all the population and bring the costs in line with that of other advanced industrial nations, (2) to extract the nation from two wars of dubious merit, (3) to reign in the exploitations of a parasitic ‘Wall Street’, (4) to return the nation to a more democratic division of wealth in part to generate greater demand for goods and services, (5) to lead us out of the Great Recession, and simultaneously (6) repair the nation’s infrastructure and modernize its industry and education system to assure future prosperity.

His supporters from 2008 stayed home or voted Republican in an expression largely of pique due to Obama not being able to redress in 20 months the decades of follies of prior administrations. He lost his mandate in the House. The Senate and perhaps even the Presidency appear at risk in the year 2012. The leadership of the House is determined to thwart his programs. For all practical purposes, his agenda is aborted and perhaps our last great hope for reversing the nation’s decline with it. Were the Gracchi brothers and their supporters Roman patriots as they envisioned themselves to be? Or were they opportunists and traitors to the institutions, traditions and principles that had bound the Republic together during past centuries?

The fall of the Roman Republic took around a hundred years. The Watchdog fears that our nation as a republic will be gone in a shorter time, and ultimately the USA will become a vassal state to China in a new world order. As distasteful as it is to say it, conceivably we would be better off.

But this is the beginning of the holiday season. Optimism for our times is called for. We look. But we cannot find it. The reason: Once people have an idea entrenched in their minds, they are unlikely to change it. Those who are unduly enriching themselves are not about to favor reform. It may take another generation or two to understand how our last great opportunity was squandered.

Yet the spirit of democracy that built this great nation could return. The United States will never again regain its position of extraordinary wealth and worldwide hegemony. But it may rise again to takes its place alongside China, India, Brazil and the European Union.

God bless and help the United States of America and its president.

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Updated: November 9, 2021 — 2:16 pm