Laughing at the Death of our Republic

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I’m glad that we can still laugh at the death of the American Republic.

The WSJ reports that everyone had a good chuckle at the Supreme Court this week during a discussion of the Affordable Care Act. The government lawyer derided Justice Alito’s suggestion that there would be no harm if the Court gutted the system of tax credits offered by the federal government.

“What about Congress?” asked Justice Scalia. “You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all these disastrous consequences ensue?”

“This Congress?” Mr. Verrilli replied. The audience erupted into laughter.

That’s right. No one, right or left, expects Congress to do anything.

That’s why the case hinges on whether the Obama administration can interpret a preposition “by” to mean “in.” Americans don’t trust Congress to pass thoughtful, well-crafted laws. We also don’t trust Congress to fix poorly worded laws after problems become apparent.

This situation reminds me a bit of where the Roman Republic found itself in the first century BC.

The Roman Senate had long been the most influential political institution of the Roman state, but factionalism began to take its toll. Some senators promoted the interests of the lower strata of Roman society over and against the senatorial families. Some senators tried to curtail the growing political influence of “the people.” Senators on both sides tended to use their faction to further their personal political success rather than to promote the health of the Roman state.

The Senate lost its credibility.

Rome faced myriad social crises in the first century BC. I can imagine one Roman citizen asking another, “You really think the Senate is just going to sit there while all these disastrous consequences ensue?” His interlocutor would undoubtedly laugh and reply, “This Senate?”

The Senate couldn’t rule so the people looked to strongmen to lead them. The succession of strongmen and their civil wars eventually gave rise to the Roman imperial system. During the first hundred years or so, this new system looked just like the old Republic, but Rome had a guy named Caesar making sure that the institutions of government ran smoothly. If a law turned out to contain problems or unforeseen consequences, Caesar could fix it.

Now, even though the Roman people began putting all their faith and hope in this one man named Caesar, they didn’t actually notice that their Republic had died until about a hundred years after the fact. All the old institutions were still there.

I’m not saying that we’re heading in the same direction as Rome. I actually think we’ve already charted a different course. But like the ancient Romans, our Republic is dead—it has been dead a long time. And like the ancient Romans, we’re just starting to notice.

In my estimation, the American Republic died one hundred and fifty years ago during the Civil War when Lincoln established the IRS. Out of the ashes of our Republic rose the American Bureaucracy, which shepherded us through the process of becoming a superpower.

But over the last few decades, it seems that Congress and the Bureaucracy for which it stands have ossified. We’ve moved into a period in which everyone expects the president to act as an elected monarch. Few Americans vote—except for a presidential candidate, because the president is seen as being the only person who can fix our problems. Is it any wonder that we invest so much time, money, and emotion in the presidential election cycle?

The typical American—and, indeed, Congress—views the president as having the powers of a monarch. The president himself knows that he has the powers of a monarch. It seems that the only people in America who aren’t convinced of the president’s status as our elected king are four, maybe five, justices on the Supreme Court.

Some of us might still mourn the passing of our Republic, but I’m glad we’re all getting to the point where we can laugh about it.

This post originally appeared at First Things on March 5, 2015.

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