"All these mournful laments for our dead (or dying) republic remind me of a scene from Robert Graves’ Claudius the God. Claudius has hatched a plot to send his son, Britannicus, into exile, from which he will someday emerge to overthrow the evil Nero and restore the Republic (Graves had to come up with a plot device to explain why his supposedly virtuous Claudius chose a depraved monster like Nero as his successor.)
But Britannicus doesn’t want any part of it:
“I don’t believe in the Republic anyway. You can’t reverse the course of history. My great-grandmother Livia said that, and it’s true. I love the days of old, as you do, but I’m not blind. The Republic is dead, except for old-fashioned people like you and Sosibus. Rome is an empire now and the choice only lies between good Emperors and bad ones.”
I’m afraid I have to side with Britannicus (and Livia, the murderous old hag) on this one. It is in the nature of things for republics, if successful enough, to evolve into empires. It is certainly unrealistic to expect a global superpower like the United States, with worldwide political and economic interests requiring the worldwide projection of military power, to remain one indefinitely. The framers, with their horror of standing armies and European militarism, would probably be surprised to learn it has lasted as long as it has, despite more than 60 years of permanent wartime moblization.
There was a time (like the 1950s) when those who thought about such things could hope that the enormous powers of modern bureaucratic institutions — corporations, unions, the Pentagon, big media, the organs of state security — could and would be counterveiling, allowing a system designed for the less gargantuan 18th century to survive into the 21st. But instead those institutions are either in terminal decline (the unions) or are integrating and evolving into a more perfected form of imperial control and self-control. Meanwhile, dissent and opposition (terms that already sound almost archaic) are increasingly channeled to the essentially neutered arena of the fringe parties and the Internet.
I’m not sure how much mourning is called for here. Two hundred and thirty some years is a pretty good run, as constitutions go. The framers built well, but no structure lasts forever. We can pine for a lost republic (which, like it’s Roman predecessor, was never as golden as it appeared in hindsight) or we can accept reality and see what can be done to make our new empire more humane and rational than it is at the moment.
An enlightened technocracy run by a self-selecting bureaucratic elite may not be very inspiring, but under the circumstances it may be better and more sustainable than a corrupt, demagogic republic run by the likes of Karl Rove (or Rahm Emanuel, for that matter) and using all the manipulative tools of modern social science.
Jefferson might not agree, but we don’t live in his world, nor him in ours."