I’m a republican. You’re a republican. It used to be that most Democrats were also republicans.
Today, I’m not even sure that most Republicans are republicans.
But I’m hoping you are, whether you vote R or D or something else. Or don’t vote at all.
This is not an essay in political latitudinarianism. Or its opposite. Actually, I’m trying to argue against anarchism.
Let me start again.
A republican is someone who upholds the idea of a republic, of a people-initiated government with limited powers and purview. This notion brewed in early Roman times, and the history and demise of republican Rome is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, most of us, these days, think of “the fall of Rome” as “the fall of the Roman Empire,” and look for parallels with our times there. But Rome fell long before it peaked in imperial reach.
That is, its republican nature was corrupted as it rose in power. It lost its republican roots. So by the time it fell when Odoacer put the usurping emperor Romulus Augustus on a pension, and ignored the “legitimate” emperor Julius Nepos entirely, Rome was something very different from a republic. Though it had a Senate even under the conqueror Odoacer, even as the Middle Ages commenced.
Republicanism as a political force hit the big time when thirteen British colonies united against their imperial overlords overseas, and seceded, forming the United States of America. The Constitution written a number of years after independence — only after a war, in part funded by competing powers in Europe — spelt out some profound ideas about republican governance, and those ideas have guided and goaded Americans ever since.
Unfortunately, those principles have always chafed ambitious men. Men like Pompey and Julius Caesar. In American history their names were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These Progressives hated the restrictions placed on politicians by the men whom Warren G. Harding dubbed the “Founding Fathers.” So, cheered on by a generation of young men who went to college in statist Europe (a coup d’etat needing intellectual backers in a republic), these men subverted the Constitution by inverting its basic notion: that the powers not granted in the document were prohibited to the federal government.
The new idea was that only those powers explicitly denied to the federal government in the Constitution were verboten. There was no implicit preference for the rights of the people (Bill of Rights, including the Ninth Amendment) or for the prerogatives of the states (Tenth Amendment).
And so The Revolution Was, as Garet Garrett put it.
We’ve been living in imperial America ever since.
Now, it’s obvious that republican elements survive. Just as republican elements survived in Rome for its half-a-millennium run. But our “republic” today isn’t the same as it was. It’s an imperial republic, now. And are we ever paying for it.
It’s also evident that imperialism isn’t just about having colonies or garrisons overseas. Oh, sure, we have our garrisons, our military bases around the world, numbering over a thousand. But what makes an empire isn’t just a reach beyond borders. It’s a reach beyond the rule of law.
And, man, do we suffer under the latter. The rule of law is now a tyranny of niggly regulations and nearly uncountable “laws.” (One way you can tell if you don’t live under a rule of law any more is that there’s a clamor for new laws after every crisis. The idea of just letting the old laws do their own work in their own time doesn’t cross many minds, any longer.) America is imperial not primarily because of its foreign policy (which, we can all agree, isn’t old-time empire-building) but, instead, for its legal and bureaucratic thicket, its imperviousness to citizen control.
The American empire has extended its territory deep into Chaos.
It’s worth noting that the key feature of America’s republic, limited government, suffers from a lack of popular support. Not, I think, because Americans wouldn’t prefer it if given a clear and consistent choice, but because they haven’t been taught it, and are constantly being distracted from it.
Still, some Americans resist. The backlash against anti-republican domestic policies has been brewing for some time, mostly at the local and state level, where voters have elbowed legislators aside and, through the initiative and referendum process, achieved some important, vital reforms. These include
- Proposition 13 in California
- Term limits in much of the country at the state and local level
- The Taxpayer Bill of Rights in Colorado
- Medical marijuana legalization (in many states) and recreational marijuana decriminalization (in two states)
These citizen-powered measures basically check abusive legislative actions, both federal and state. They have been necessary because of the corruption of constitutional practice by progressives and political opportunists.
All governments require limits. Your local sheriff can be as effective a tyrant as the POTUS, in part because his territory is so limited. POTUS probably doesn’t care one fig, really, about what you do. But your local sheriff may care way too much. He may, after all, have a hankering to put as many people in prison as possible. Or extract as much wealth as possible from the citizenry, and establish policing procedures that allow it.
Which is why republicanism isn’t just for the federal government. The federal Constitution, in its original, restrictive sense, isn’t real republicans’ only concern. It may be just as important to prevent your town or county from setting up a speed trap, or carry on a campaign of petty law enforcement.
Tyranny isn’t better because it’s local.
It’s only easier, sometimes, to overthrow.
But that can only happen if “the people” understand what’s at stake. And care enough to do something about it.
For a moment there, as the economy was tanking and the politicians were panicking and the bailouts had begun, the emergent Tea Party movement seemed like a source of hope. A popular movement that one writer astutely noticed was the first of its kind since the Locofocos of the 1830s.
And yet it seemed to peter out. Why? For lack of interest? Or leadership? (That is, did Lois Lerner and the IRS kill it off?) Or did the Tea Party get too involved in national Republican Party politics?
Or maybe it just lost out to the Occupy movement.
On the surface, both Tea Partiers and Occupiers seemed upset at some of the same things, particularly the bailout of Wall Street. Ralph Nader and others advise the two strains of American unrest should bury their mutual resentments and combine to throw out the insiders.
But the most prominent politicians attached to the Occupy movement seem to have other ideas. Elizabeth Warren charged that Tea Party protestors — as well as their favored GOP politicians — were mere anarchists. No-Government men.
An odd charge, on the face of it. Whereas the Occupier protests were filled with litter and crime and trespass, the Tea Party folks behaved themselves pretty well. If anyone could be counted on to support their local police department, my bet would be on Tea Party folks. Occupiers not only dumped on police, but one protestor infamously and disgustingly took a dump on a police car.
Culturally, it’s the Occupiers who seem more anarchistic. The Tea Partiers held their protests and went home. And back to work. The Occupiers lingered in parks and on private property for weeks and months, imitating the General Strike so beloved of 19th century radicals.
What Elizabeth Warren — and, I fear, too many folks left of center — cannot understand is that protesting too much government is not the same thing as protesting all government. Could it be that she and her Occupier friends only identify government as government when it constantly grows, so that it will one day morph into full communism? Anything short of that, for them, might as well be nothing.
Well, good government isn’t nothing. Good government is not a crime. Good government affirms general principles — laws, and the rule of law — that benefit all. Good government isn’t taking from some and giving to others, with a “house cut” taken at every transaction. Good government reinforces the basic social attitude: we give up hasty violence and exploitative, ruinous options to pursue peaceful co-operation.
Unfortunately, power being what it is, and as tempting as it is, good government is hard to maintain. Good government requires vigilance. Apathy leads to bad governance. Fear and cowardice and greed lead to empire. Every time you shrug and allow a tyranny to go on at City Hall or at the county seat, an anarchist smiles an eldritch smile, warming his native despair with Schadenfreude.
Don’t let that happen. Make the anarchists admit that some political action can have good effects, namely defending the rights of normal folk.
September 28, 2014
This column first appeared on Townhall.com.