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  • Grace Whitken

An American Identity Crisis

1898 political cartoon highlighting early United States imperialism.

America’s political system is rooted in the epic histories of the Roman Republic and Empire. The founding fathers studied these classic societies closely and believed they offered valuable advice in creating a government for the newly independent colonies of the United States (U.S.).While lessons taken from the Romans have contributed to long-lasting freedoms and enduring global power, they also reveal certain unforeseen weaknesses in the U.S. political system. The decline of the Roman Republic was largely due to the corrosion of traditional Roman values, the greed of the senate, failed social reforms, and a division between the ruling and the working class. The imperial government that followed systematically suppressed social and political progress and reserved power only for the minority elite. A combination of new issues and problems that had long been ignored contributed to the fall, or as Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome?, called it, the unraveling of the Roman Empire. Corruption, the complications of size, inadequate capabilities of those in power, and political figures’ unwillingness to protect the people turned a harmonious collectivist society into an opportunistic and individualist one that parallels that of the U.S. today.

The U.S. Constitution is rigid and outdated, and its resistance to change threatens the endurance of the political system by eliminating adaptability. Many argue that sticking to tradition is the safest way to ensure the preservation of founding ideals and that “if it worked then, it will work now”. However, Plato’s observation of the historical cycles of global governments from monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and democracy to anarchy, prove that change is inevitable. During the fall of the Republic, two progressive brothers called the Gracchi attempted to redistribute excess land from the wealthy to small farmers. The brothers were killed by nobles but worshiped postmortem by the Roman people. The people were failed by their rulers, and it led to total ruin soon after. Resistance to change is not only futile but dangerous. Traditions will always fail to be perfectly applicable to new situations because history is impossible to recreate. 

The founding fathers failed to understand the lesson from Rome that unqualified and unvetted leadership can lead to fatal political errors.The Roman Republic, like the U.S., had no substantive list of qualifications for leadership positions, and the Empire fully excluded the public voice. With an inability to vet politicians, the U.S. has been and remains vulnerable to the inadequacies and personal whims of unqualified officials on Capitol Hill. Though the U.S.’ representative democracy is designed to protect the will of the people, the lack of limitations on how many terms incumbent officials may serve and the presence of the electoral college both have the effect of limiting a consistent and relevant representation of the public and of filtering the voice of the people. The electoral college was based on the rationalized idea of keeping an uninformed public from making poor political decisions about their governance, but this initial purpose is no longer applicable . As seen in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote but was elected president by electoral vote, the electoral system actively worked against popular will. The pre-requirements for holding office in the Constitution were made intentionally minute to ensure (theoretically) that any member of the public could be elected as a representative of unfiltered public will. While the lack of limitations allows equal access to government, it does nothing to prevent unqualified, incapable candidates from holding office. The occupational deficiencies allowed by the Constitution are equally as dangerous as the unfavorable personal qualities of elected officials.The combination contributes to the abuse of insider information, the commoditization of political power, and the increasing political deference to the will of NGOs. The destructive tendency of Roman politicians to act in their own self-interest for the purpose of gaining social currency and wealth should have served as a warning to the founders that their own politicians might develop similar tendencies within a similar system. The Romans believed that the idea of working towards happiness (or wealth) in one's future prevented one from making the best out of their current life. In the same way, limiting the amount of incumbent terms officials may serve and establishing base qualifications for officers might prevent the monopolization of public office. 

The unfortunate propensity of those in positions of power to place personal interest above public interest inherently diminishes the volume of the public voice. That propensity in combination with the U.S.’ culture of capitalism and American exceptionalism contributes to the privatization of government in the form of industry contracting. In a capitalist society, it is easier to achieve political goals by circumventing heavily restricted government agencies and polarized politics by paying a private company to do the work. Rome saw a similar effect during the Republic and the Empire when nobles competed with each other for popular support via public bribery and in the way that their military’s allegiance shifted from nation to whoever was distributing wages. The unlimited growth of the wealth of the ruling class and unregulated growth of unemployment were consequences of conquest by Roman politicians that undermined the function of their republic. In the same way, corporations in the U.S. have control and influence to the same level that corrupt aristocrats in Rome had over their government and people. Rome was once a virtuous nation that became an empire of greed and ignorant exceptionalism. If the U.S. does not embrace systemic reform soon the integrity of the system could be lost in the same way that Rome’s was.


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