No one remembers the name of the last Roman Senator. Schoolchildren learn that the Republic was destroyed by Julius Caesar’s coup and the rise of the emperors. They don’t learn that the visible symbols of the republic remained functioning and intact long after they lost their relevance.
There is no specific date in history when Rome ceased to be a republic. Little by little, decree by decree, the most durable and effective representative government that had existed to that time ceded its power first to an aristocracy, then to a monarch and finally to a series of warlords.
There was still a Roman Senate as late as 603 CE, more than six centuries after Julius Caesar. We don’t know who served in the Senate or what power it held after about the 5th century CE, when darkness descended on the West. We do know that the Curia Julia, which had housed the Senate since 44 BCE, was converted into a church in 630 CE. The Roman Senate, cut off from the center of power, gradually shriveled into obscurity.
Democracy doesn’t rise from a particular set of laws. It isn’t based on elections or constitutions or courts. Democracy is achieved and sustained by a delicate balance of power in a society. Representative governments fail when wealth and its attendant power concentrates beyond a tipping point, giving a narrow few united by their own common interests the capacity to thwart the many. When enough money concentrates into few enough hands, those few can buy or bully their way into the outcomes they choose. Representative governments seldom die suddenly. More often they are smothered.
Maintaining a democracy means more than holding elections. There’s nothing magical about voting. Putin won elections. Hitler led a powerful political party. If elections made democracies work, then Afghanistan and Iraq would be healthy democracies. A democracy is an organism, not a machine. Maintaining a democracy means clinging not just to elections, but to a broader template of practices and institutions that spread wealth, power, and opportunity. It demands active participation by citizens. Absent that ecosystem of mediating forces, a democracy will die on its feet, its elected bodies still wrangling and legislating as if any of it mattered.
Concentration of wealth, by itself, is not necessarily fatal to a democracy as long as those wealthy people retain a diversity of interests, and the masses remain intelligently engaged. The US was able for many years to sustain a modicum of representative order thanks to political disunity among its elites. The President who rescued the American experiment from Fascism in the 1930’s was the scion of an obscenely wealthy aristocratic family. A thin sliver of contemporary US billionaires like Gates, Buffet, Bezos, Soros and Hanauer are battling to protect democratic values and institutions. However, gambling on the benevolence of the billionaire class is a dangerous game. It is a game, in fact, that we may have just lost.
We often imagine that some siren goes off when historically significant events occur. We ask ourselves why Germans and Italians didn’t rise in revolt against their oppressive Fascist regimes. In reality, for an ordinary shopkeeper or factory worker in Munich, nothing meaningful happened the day after Hitler became Chancellor, or in the weeks or months that followed.
Jews in Germany in 1933 experienced little dramatic change. What unfolded over the next five years was a gradual, frog-in-the-frying-pan escalation of anti-Semitic persecution which had been rising across the prior decade. Starting in 1935 there were new restrictions on Jewish work and education opportunities, copied from US race laws. These restraints were troubling, but they did not seem insurmountable or lethal. The Reichstag continued to meet. Immigration controls were imposed. The economy rapidly improved. Unemployment fell and the currency stabilized. It’s been noted that if Hitler had died in 1938, his crimes would have been whitewashed and he’d be remembered as one of Germany’s more successful leaders.
Germans were warned of what was coming by figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but they ignored those warnings, seeing nothing in their own atomized daily lives to suggest concern. Even as the grey snow of human ash coated their streets, they carried on their daily activities in blissful, stubborn ignorance. Consequences would arrive. By the time World War II ended, almost half of the conscription-age German males alive in 1939 had died. Three-quarters of the country’s military men had been killed or wounded. That figure excludes the millions of German POWs who would later die in Russian captivity. Those numbers are estimates, because the Germans lost the capacity to reliably record their losses during 1944. German boys born in 1923 were unlikely to see 1946, a fate they invited on themselves as they rallied enthusiastically at Nuremberg. German voters’ gamble on Hitler would cost them forty years of population growth. Politics is a serious business.
Hitler and Mussolini rose to power when an impoverished and deeply divided populace lost their capacity to push back against their plutocrats. Nazis formed a coalition government with wealthy conservatives despite failing to win an electoral majority. Hindenburg, a wealthy aristocrat, named Hitler Chancellor to stave off the threat to himself and his class from the rising Socialist movement in Germany. King Victor Emmanuel made the same self-serving compromise in Italy, placing Mussolini in power.
Democracies do not “fall,” they rot. Too much money concentrated in too few hands can grant a wealthy class enough influence to override or distort popular will. At the grassroots level, forces that degrade our participation public institution make it cheaper for the wealthy to buy power. Even with a great deal of wealth concentration, the presence of deep, highly participatory local institutions can blunt the influence of money. When that thick network of local institutions, from PTA’s to professional clubs, hollows out at the same time that wealth concentration spikes, a representative government can face a crisis.
We live in a country in which 400 families now control more wealth than the bottom 60% of Americans. It is impossible to run a successful high level political campaign devoid of their support. We live a country governed by a career criminal who refuses to disclose his financial dealings and openly profits from our Presidency. Over the past three decades, we have borrowed $22 trillion to finance tax cuts for our wealthiest families. Many of our most profitable major corporations no longer pay taxes. Faced with this mounting challenge, we’ve discovered that our democratic institutions lack the power and influence to limit abuses by our elites.
Thanks to a long, well-funded campaign of legislative harassment led by “nice” Republican legislators like Peter Roskam, the IRS lacks the resources to pursue wealthy tax cheats. It now focuses the bulk of its very limited remaining energies on auditing low income taxpayers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit for struggling families.
Decades of deregulation initiated by the Clinton Administration, and continued to absurd extremes in subsequent years, gutted financial regulation. In this climate global money laundering has flourished, enriching those who collaborate in the trade for arms and drugs, and those looting loosely governed countries like ours.
What is life like in a declining democracy? Even the most outrageous criminals cannot be punished if they have money and political ties. Jeffrey Epstein ran a child sex ring not just for profit, but to cultivate political power through blackmail. His “friends” included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, along with innumerable second and third tier figures like Alan Dershowitz, Kevin Spacey, Eliot Spitzer, governors from both parties, Hollywood figures and major political donors.
When the children raped in his operation went to law enforcement, Epstein’s powerful friends worked the system to protect him. Donald Trump apparently intimidated at least one of the accusers into silence. Some remain in hiding. Trump’s comments on Epstein are illuminating, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
A US Attorney took control of Epstein’s case and offered him an extraordinary plea deal. He served his 13 month incarceration like a Columbian drug lord, with his own wing of the prison and “work release” to his office. The federal prosecutor who helped dismantle Epstein’s prosecution and silence his accusers is now the Secretary of Labor under Trump.
We have still heard very few of the stories from Epstein’s victims because they recognize the inability of our democracy to protect them. We now have two known sex offenders on the Supreme Court and one in the White House. We have no idea how many are in Congress and little capacity to limit their influence.
Impunity to criminal prosecution creates wide opportunity for fraud. Cost of ordinary, uninteresting, yet essential drugs like insulin have skyrocketed in recent years thanks to careful corporate manipulation. When drug companies attempted a similar move in the 1940’s, they were thwarted by federal criminal indictments. Not today.
The Sackler family made a fortune through a legalized synthetic heroin operation enabled by fraud and bribery. OxyContin generated a national addiction crisis that claims more lives each year than we lost in the entire Vietnam War, enough to bend our national mortality curve. They will face no consequences regardless of election outcomes because they’ve spread their political donations very carefully (and generously) across both parties. If you find the Sacklers’ scam nauseating, you don’t want to examine the Epi-pen business.
Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and her brother, Erik Prince, represent a billionaire family threatening to dim our prospects from cradle to grave. DeVos is gutting campus sexual abuse reforms and promising a return to for-profit student loans and charter schools. Her brother still makes a killing in the war business. After avoiding responsibility for civilian murders by his “contractors” in Iraq, he closed his ties to Blackwater and ventured out on his own. He now runs a global for-profit mercenary empire pressing to assume military control of Afghanistan.
A multi-billion dollar private prison industry has emerged around the harassment of immigrants, both legal and illegal. We are building for-profit concentration camps for immigrant children torn from their parents. Yet not a single CEO has been indicted over the past decade for the illegal hiring of undocumented workers. How much money will Trump family loot from border wall contracts? We won’t know, because our elected government isn’t powerful enough to require the necessary financial disclosures.
As the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn helped facilitate one of the largest robberies in history. When Jho Low and the Malaysian Prime Minister needed help embezzling $7bn from a sovereign wealth fund, they turned to Goldman. After the robbery unraveled, Cohn went on to a senior position in the Trump Administration, playing a key role selling the Republican tax cuts.
Can you recall the last time your government pursued a major anti-trust effort? What about a securities fraud case? When was the last time you remember hearing about a prosecution for tax fraud, embezzlement from a charity, or campaign finance abuse? Bribery? Those crimes are almost never committed by poor people, by minorities or by immigrants. Those are the crimes of wealthy white families who never put a finger on the corpses of their victims. They can only be prosecuted by a powerful, representative government animated by an active, engaged body of citizens.
We are the last democratic nation on the planet without universal health insurance. We’ve been told it’s too expensive and for some reason we believe it.
Trump’s election was a disruptive event, but it was neither the cause of our democratic decline nor its conclusion, just a sudden and consequential bend in the curve. Surprisingly, few of the horrors unleashed by this administration were begun under Trump’s leadership. Little if anything in the Trump agenda lies outside conventional Republican policy.
Many of this administration’s worst policies were initiated decades ago and continued under Obama’ administration. Trump’s personal repulsiveness, criminality, and incompetence deliver a second chance not offered to Italians and Germans in the 30’s. Hitler and Mussolini were more credible, competent and frankly human than Trump. Hitler served his country in the military, spent decades organizing a political movement, and wrote a mostly coherent book in his own hand. Hitler had a dog. Trump hasn’t logged much of a body count yet, but neither did Hitler in his first few years. There’s nothing Trump wouldn’t do to earn applause. No one is safe from his lust for the acclamation of a crowd. All that’s saved us so far from the fate of 20th century Europeans is Trump’s poor work ethic and limited attention span.
Shaken into shock by a grotesquely abhorrent leader, we have a chance to arrest our decline. That begins with a realization – resistance starts at home.
Troubled by this scenario? Know the name and email address of your city councilmen. Make sure your local representatives know of your concerns. Are you worried about the Trump administration’s racist policies? Do your city councilmen know you care about affordable housing in your community, police abuse, and school segregation? Do you in fact care about those issues as they relate to your zip code?
We didn’t land in this position overnight. Decades of public neglect and complacency opened the door for a few wealthy families animated by common interests to manipulate our democracy. Taking back our power means forging new alliances with our neighbors at the local level. That will cost us an investment of our most valuable resource – time. Will Americans be willing to make that sacrifice? Will they continue that investment after the cartoon horror of this administration disappears?
A disturbing possibility looms in our post-Trump future. With the orange face of bigotry removed from the scene, will we all go back to our pre-Trump lives?
There was a still a Senate in Rome long after the nation itself had disappeared. No newspaper headline, official decree, or air-raid siren will declare the end of representative government. Democratic decline is a process, not an event.
Democracy survives under an ironic curse – we will always have the government we deserve. Will we seize our opportunity to deserve better?
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.