- by New Deal democrat
Can an Empire-sized Republic long survive? This was the issue I pondered after Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. Once a country gets big enough, do elected officials ultimately fail, and people inevitably turn to an autocrat to lead them?
That led me on a journey reading the histories of all of the larger Republics in human history, from Rome through Venice, Genoa, Florence, the Swiss Confederation, the Dutch Republic, and the Glorious Revolution that birthed the modern UK.
It also caused me to realize that the most revolutionary part of the US Constitution, although the Founders did not realize it at the time, was the enshrinement of judicial supremacy over the other two branches of government, via the philosopher kings with life tenure who sat on the Supreme Court and who were allowed the last word on interpreting the US Constitution and the statutes of Congress. In so doing, the Founders broke a cardinal rule that had guided Republics for over 2000 years; namely, the greater the power of the office, the shorter period of time it should be held. Otherwise, the temptation of tyranny would be too great.
This was made bracingly clear this past week with the leak of Alito’s draft opinion overruling Roe v. Wade, and making quite clear that the majority of the present Court views entire “right to privacy” as illegitimate - which if it is close to the final opinion, is the biggest “crossing of the Rubicon” for the Court since Dred Scott. Judicial supremacy with lifetime appointments means that the entire basic structure of society, no matter how long entrenched, is subject to the whims of a bare majority of the members of that Court. The arguments of anti-Federalist Brutus, that the Supreme Court, once it recognized its power, would turn tyrannical, and whose essays I have highlighted in past posts, have at last been proven thoroughly correct.
To return to my main theme, I have also recently read “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, after which I compared it with Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens.”
While I was unimpressed by most of “The Dawn of Everything” - most of it was extrapolation and speculation every bit as valid as that by the drunk at the end of the bar - the part that was most convincing was the hard evidence of archeology. There are two important facts that jumped out about the excavations of ancient cities and settlements: (1) the brickwork and construction were every bit as exact and impressive as your best planned modern city or town. These were no hovels or shacks, but well-executed dwellings; and (2) as the authors point out, most of them show no evidence of palaces or any other outsized buildings we would expect to be occupied by rulers. In short, going back 10,000 years, the hard evidence of archeology suggests that most settlements were village-sized Republics, on the order of New England town halls.
Why did “civilization” begin? I think Harari has the better argument. Graeber and Wengrow think that civilization drives population growth; but the evidence is most consistent with the reverse causation, i.e., population growth drove the necessity for more organized and permanent food production, and for denser and permanent living arrangements. Harari notes just how exponential long term human population growth has been. Only 2500 years ago, during the golden age of Athens or the first Chinese dynasty, human population was only about *1%* of what it is now.
In any event, there is a good argument that historically the default government for most human populations hasn’t been dynasty or autocracy, but rather small-scale Republics, with pre-set rules and public participation (Vindication for John Rawls!).
In the last 500 years, but especially the last 200 through 1991, the long-term political trend has been the displacement of heredity autocracies by Republics on a large, nation-state or empire scale (including those where there are still monarchs, but like QE2, they only reign but do not rule). Before that, only the Roman Republic, its opponent Carthage, and medieval Venice were republics which had ever governed very large or disparate land areas.
The first modern transformations were the Dutch revolt of the 1580s and the ensuing Republic, followed by the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688. But the real turning point, where the transformation scaled up, were the American and French Revolutions, both of which established Republics on very large scales. It took 200 years, but by 1991, all of the *ruling* monarchies had been overthrown, and in almost the entire West, including Latin America and, briefly, Russia, but also in places like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the rule of law - however shakily - was ascendant.
But - to return to my initial question - can Republics also be Empires? As I wrote above, the historical examples going back 1000s of years are few and far between - and two of the three came to bad ends (the exception, Venice, was fading ever since Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but was not finally overcome until Napoleon. Only 70 years later, it became part of Italy). The British Empire certainly qualifies, but there civic participation was most definitely *not* extended to the imperial vassal states. And now we come to the present, where the US and EU are the modern tests.
Since 1989, with the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the alternative - Great Powers ruled as autocracies - has been gaining strength and become ascendant, by the entrenchment of Vladimir Putin in Russia, and a host of autocratic rulers in places like Hungary. And Trump’s (temporary?) failure in the US in 2017-21 wasn’t for lack of trying.
In other words, from a large scale historical perspective, to reiterate my opening remark, we have turned the page into an era where the question is, can liberal democratic Republics survive long once they reach the size of Empires; or must they inevitably fall into tyranny (the ancient cycle long ago proposed by the Greeks on the scale of city-states)? From the internal viewpoint of the US in 2022, I am not too hopeful.