I am very far from original in noticing similarities in the histories of Rome and America—republics that became empires. The decline and fall of the former has often been thought to foretell the fate of the latter. A Frenchman some years ago wrote a fairly convincing book called The Coming Caesars. Such analogies are interesting and suggestive but should not be put forward too dogmatically. History does repeat itself because human nature remains the same and because civilized people build institutions that then perpetuate themselves for their own sake rather than for the purpose for which they were established. Power-seeking, luxury, debauchery, irresponsibility, and sloth are ever present and are held in check only for brief and extraordinary periods by Christianity or patriotism. Still, the recurrences of past patterns are never exactly the same. The more intimately one knows a past time, the more cautious one becomes in sweeping generalizations. All large events, like the fall of Rome or the American war of 1861-65, have multiple “causes”—some deep, and some circumstantial. Indeed, sweeping generalizations about history by people who don’t know what they are talking about are a major blight on American discourse.
The decline and fall of Rome has been blamed on enervating luxury, moral debauchery, imperial overreach, dilution of the founding stock, multiculturalism, bad economic policy, replacement of citizen soldiers by foreign mercenaries, lead poisoning, and, if you believe Gibbon, Christianity. Such weaknesses left the empire prey to our “barbaric” ancestors. Dr. Thomas Fleming is my infallible authority on all things classical, and I defer to and welcome his correction. But as I read it, one of the observable phenomena in the decline of Rome is that republican institutions were maintained in name when they had been entirely transformed in substance. The senate continued long after it had lost all power. It no longer represented the interests of a real society but, like the American Congress today, was an appendage of the emperor. The fiction was maintained that the emperor was only the first among equals. And yet, like the American president, he was ranked by many among the gods.
Doesn’t that describe the state that the American government has reached today? The U.S. Constitution continues to receive lip service, when it has all but ceased to exist. The Framers and ratifiers of the Constitution would not recognize today’s federal government as having any relation to the instrument they created. All three branches of the federal government have committed violations of fundamental law that are as bad as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. Obama and his predecessor have ruled essentially as elected emperors who may do anything without any effective opposition. The Congress has become a rubber stamp of the executive, and the Supreme Court the maker of far-reaching laws.
All that remains is for the emperor to rule for life. Third World dictators do so, and the widespread adulation of Obama definitely has aspects of Third World leader-worship. Why can’t Obama be elected again and again? All it would take is for the Supreme Court to suspend or overrule the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms. Such a ruling would be no more extreme in reasoning and usurpation than many rulings already made and enforced. A large majority of Congress would fall down and worship rather than put up an opposition that might make them unpopular or threaten their power and perks.
America today bears many of the characteristics that have been checked off as causes of the decline and fall of Rome. Bread and circuses (multiple forms of welfare, television, sports), imperial overreach, replacement of the founding population with foreigners, concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Surely, one of the observable clues to Roman decline was the proletarianization of the population. Indeed, the term prole originates with Rome as a description of the propertyless. The sturdy yeoman class—attached to land and hearth, household gods, and republican virtue—departed or disappeared into the impoverished, multicultural, and dependent urban mob or imperial wars. At the same time the wealthy and well placed became ever more wealthy and more lacking in civic character. You can certainly see here analog to present American reality. The proletarianization of the upper-middle, middle, and working classes is the most important major trend of our time. For the first time in American history the promise of the “land of opportunity” has become a bad joke.
One thing about this has puzzled and troubled me. How could the traditionally wealthy and powerful ruling class of Rome so readily exploit and discard the general mass of their fellow citizens, not in the least regretting their disappearance or understanding the social costs? Wouldn’t the wealthy and powerful naturally have some fellow feeling, some allegiance to their countrymen of the middle classes with whom they long shared a civic, religious, and military tradition?
I was, as usual, too idealistic and too attached to a dead tradition of a responsible Southern aristocracy of Washington, Jefferson, and Lee. Observing America today has cured me of such foolishness. I understand how it happened because I see it happening now. Our wealthy and powerful class is no less ruthless, selfish, and shortsighted than the Roman. Wealth is becoming more and more concentrated into fewer hands, and the wealthy are becoming ever less responsible and patriotic and attached to their fellow citizens. This is decline and fall without a doubt, and nobody even notices or gives a damn.
Please take note, Mr. Lincoln. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is indeed perishing from the earth.