In the summer heat of 1787, delegates gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, to craft for America a new government. But, the outcome was by no means certain.
Would we be governed by a new monarchy? By some form of oligarchy? Those were the most likely outcomes, as demonstrated by countless revolutions before and since. The least likely and most radical outcome was our successful implementation of a representative republic.
Late in the Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a lady, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s response underscores the tenuous nature of any republic — it is difficult to get, far more difficult to keep.
What Franklin knew, and we have forgotten, is a republic is a fragile form of government. It is the apex of all forms of government, outside the Kingdom of God. But at that apex, the republic teeters on a knife’s edge between the dark precipices of oligarchy and anarchy.
Keeping a republic requires constant diligence and effort by the people. And, there’s the rub. Historically, the citizens of republics haven’t succeeded in keeping their republics out of the filthy hands of oligarchs and anarchists much past the state of our own union.
Political philosophers, from Plato to Machiavelli and John Locke, have long described this almost inevitable cycle: Republics degenerate to more oppressive, less representative forms of government, before having to be remade into something new. As the people, over time, become apathetic in maintaining their grip on the reins of state, corruption and the greed of the wealthy and powerful fill the void.
In his “Discourses,” Machiavelli outlined this degenerative cycle (and if you’re going to quote Machiavelli, please don’t just read the CliffsNotes of “The Prince”): “For a Monarchy readily becomes a Tyranny, an Aristocracy an Oligarchy, while a Democracy tends to degenerate into Anarchy.”
All republics eventually fall to this point — the crucial divergence in their cycle of generation, decline and regeneration, in which the people must choose to either re-establish control over their government or else passively accept tyranny masquerading as a representative government. We are at that point.
We haven’t arrived at this point in the last two years, or at the fault of only one party. Our current sad state of affairs is simply the most pressing and visible sign of rot that has been eroding our republic since its inception.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington warned us against the injurious effects of partisan politics: “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”
The partisan nature of our politics has increased steadily since then, with a steep upturn in that curve in the 2008 presidential election, to the point now that our leaders have trouble even pretending to any allegiance beyond themselves and their party.
Add in the unparalleled influence of the military-industrial complex post-9/11, the Supreme Court Citizens United decision of 2010, which gave corporations unprecedented ability to buy our government, and Congress’ cowardly refusal to respond to Russian meddling in our elections, and you have a sad state on the brink of oligarchy.
Locke, in his “Second Treatise on Civil Government,” predicted this state of affairs in 1689. And, when the people have allowed themselves to fall under the rule of the few and wealthy, Locke tells us the people “have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.”
How do we accomplish this? One positive step away from the brink would be passage of a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, proposed by Senate Democrats this week, to do away with Citizens United and limit corporate influence in our government. Another imminently necessary step is passage of comprehensive protections for the security and legitimacy of our elections.
Unfortunately, with Moscow Mitch McConnell at the helm of the Senate, it’s unlikely either of those measures will go anywhere.
And that leaves us all, Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between, with only one constitutional measure remaining to turn our republic back from the brink: vote.
In a republic with some of the worst voter turnout among industrialized nations, we need Americans — Republicans and Democrats — to set aside cheap, meme-driven, knee-jerk party voting. We need to educate ourselves — with actual facts. We need to give a crap about the survival of our republic. And we need to vote.
I have every confidence we can still save this nation, if we begin to rule ourselves out of a spirit of responsibility for our own liberty, instead of fear and willful ignorance.
But, Ben Franklin’s question remains. We have a republic.
But, can we keep it? History, and our children, await our answer.