Dr. Edward Watts is a professor of history at the University of California at San Diego. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale and is the author of five books, most recently, “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny.” The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Governing: We’re suddenly in this situation where the wear and tear on our republic looks severe. The perennial desire to analogize America with Rome has taken on new potency.
Ed Watts: This is something that thinkers across many centuries have struggled with. Some of the basic principles that Romans articulated as governing principles for their republic are principles that later republics adopted. In the United States, in particular, the principles emphasized are those of separation of powers, checks on magistrates and rule of law that governs political behaviors. It’s rule of law that depends on an overwhelming supermajority consensus. There’s continual touching back to these basic principles that reaffirm what the republic is supposed to do. We have regularly done this in the United States. Our election process represents this reaffirmation of the basic principles of our representative democracy.
Governing: The American public doesn’t really know this story of our Founding Fathers’ obsession with the Roman Republic. What do we lose by not having that mirror right now?
Watts: The Founding Fathers had a very specific reason for being attracted to Rome. Not only was Rome’s Republic remarkably successful, but it was remarkably well-suited to the kind of project that the founders were imagining in the United States. That’s because Rome’s was a republic that, as it expanded, incorporated representative democracy.
The Roman example is baked into our political DNA. It is essential to understand the challenges Rome faced as it expanded and incorporated new people, but it is just as essential to understand the challenges that Rome did not face up to that proved fatal to that republic. Some of the pathologies that Rome was not able to deal with are pathologies that we may be susceptible to.
The republic falls in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era), but the path was actually charted nearly a hundred years before. The real issues that led to this should resonate for us now. It started because there was a revolution in the way the Roman economy worked in the mid-second century that created massively wealthy people. They were entitled by law to this wealth, but it did not feel fair. They were doing this when most Romans were not getting the full advantages of this economic revolution. This was a political problem that could have been solved through law and through electoral politics, but the republic could not come up with consensus-based policies to address this wealth inequality fast enough to eliminate anger and resentment. And it was in the 130s BCE that politicians began to demagogue on this issue.
Executive Power and the Rise of Extra-Constitutional Order
Governing: When a republic can’t solve the problems that it must inevitably solve, things seem to quickly begin to break down. Barack Obama, due to paralysis that he saw in the Republican-controlled Congress, operated in his second term largely by the essentially extra-constitutional mechanism of executive order. That’s a tame form of extra-constitutionalism compared to what we’re looking at in Rome. But the same thing is happening now where there’s paralysis and there are fundamental problems to be solved.
Watts: Right. The situation we’re probably going to be looking at in 2021 is a lot like what Caesar faced. There were massive problems that Rome was not able to deal with because of political paralysis in the ’60s BCE. It’s remarkable that it was allowed to fester for as long as it did because it involved things like trying to create a governing structure to incorporate the conquered Middle East into a constitutional Roman order. This was blocked for years by the Senate. You had millions of people in the Middle East who literally didn’t know what legal system they were under. Rome refused to act.
Significant amounts of money were tied up in public contracts that had basically served as financial instruments, akin to our subprime mortgages. These things were in danger of basically collapsing and causing a financial panic in Rome. There was an easy legislative fix that was blocked simply for political reasons. When Caesar came in as consul, there were massive problems with relatively easy solutions, but they had not been addressed. Political paralysis meant that it was politically expedient for people like Cato the Younger to prevent the state from working. The people were frustrated, which is why Caesar had tremendous political support. But again, I think we should always go back to the point that Cicero makes: A republic must be governed by laws and a republic that’s not governed by laws is not a republic.
Many Romans, of all political persuasions, felt that it was OK to break with customs and with legal precedents when it was to their advantage. They always felt that the republic would snap back. If you are willing to agree that Obama was justified in doing some of the things he did through executive action, on legal principle, then you are acknowledging that executive action is a way to govern.
Governing: Obama, in my opinion, used extra-constitutional mechanisms for the common good. Certainly he felt they were for the common good. They were meant to get the republic to embrace more people, to solve certain problems in ways that were peaceful and equitable. Then comes Donald Trump, using extra-constitutional measures in ways that violate the very idea of a republic. Once you erode those norms, it’s hard to get back.
The Challenge of Upholding a Republic
Watts: That’s the real challenge that Romans in the first century faced, and it’s what Americans in the 21st century face. Everybody in Rome, even Augustus, who effectively undid the republic, created the narrative that he was restoring the republic. This worked because everybody said that they valued the republic. They valued what it promised. But sometimes this fidelity to the idea of the republic and the need to actually get things done comes into conflict. And what everybody in first-century Rome, and everybody in the 21st-century United States, struggles with is the question of how to uphold this institution that everybody values.
Governing: If we still really believed we were a republic in any meaningful sense, the Senate would have stood up to President Trump, even when they agreed with him. It’s not about policy but a constitutional principle. But the Senate didn’t understand. It endorsed what he did. It didn’t seem to understand that it’s undermining the health of the republic for temporary policy gains.
Watts: The diversion of appropriated funds was the one that really stood out to me. In Rome, that was the breaking. It was a violation of hundreds of years of precedent. And when Congress approves funds for building schools on military bases and the president unilaterally redirects those funds to something else, it is a very clear violation, not only of how things have worked in the past but also what the constitution sets. That was a moment where everybody should have stood up and said, “We have rules.” Very little was said, even from the political left.
Governing: Given that the Romans had a sense of the majesty of their constitution that exceeded even that of our own Founding Fathers, why didn’t they rise to the occasion by making the imaginative and flexible leaps that would have enabled them to go on?
Watts: The idea of the republic was something that every Roman valued. But it became difficult when, for example, they’d promised a food distribution but couldn’t pay for it. They would channel money that the Senate had appropriated for something else to support this reform. One little extra-constitutional thing doesn’t undo the republic, but a century or more of people making those little compromises and making decisions that served their own interests at the expense of the larger integrity of the political system is what did Rome in. And it’s clear that we are now struggling with how we make those choices. The other thing that’s important for us to understand is they couldn’t imagine that their republic was going to die.
Having a Historical Imagination
Governing: In the first and last chapters of your book, “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny,” there seems to be an inescapable analogy with what is happening today in the United States.
Watts: I started thinking more about how this story could provide us with ways to think about our current reality, knowing there isn’t an exact parallel. My students were struggling to use the late republic in that way. That’s what prompted the book. It’s a book about Rome, but I hope it will encourage us to think more broadly about what’s going on now.
People don’t think in centuries when they think about historical processes. That’s one of the challenges we have in the United States. We don’t have a historical imagination that extends across centuries and looks for trends that we’re just starting to feel but that maybe started in the 1960s. We don’t think that way because our history is short. And Romans didn’t think that way, in part, because their history was long. They couldn’t imagine the outcome that they actually got. What I hoped the book would do was allow us to imagine more outcomes, to think more expansively about what we might be experiencing and to be open to a larger range of possibilities and challenges that we were confronting. And, ideally, to help us to do better than the Romans did when they faced things like the rise of political violence or the decline in institutional checks in their republic.
Blame It on the 1960s
Governing: As you say, we’re not Rome. But you do see an increasing pace of extra-constitutional activity. More than that, you see an increasing complacency on the part of the American people in the face of that activity. What can we learn that’s useful to us here?
Watts: First, I think it’s possible to imagine a historian in 2,000 years saying that our political crisis started in the mid-1960s. Then the scope of political violence becomes different. If we expand our horizons and start looking at a political process of degeneration that starts in 1964, what we see is a lot of political violence and a lot of explosions of constitutional norms in the ’60s and early ’70s. There was the war in Cambodia and all of the Nixon stuff. Then you had a reform movement. You see a pullback from the violent street politics of the ’60s and early ’70s. Then later, you see a reaction to that, starting with things like the removal of the FCC’s fairness doctrine and the rise of right-wing talk radio, creating an oppositional culture that tries to undermine the legitimacy of the Clinton administration.
You see this movement rising back up to the kinds of erosions of constitutional norms that we’ve seen in the 2010s. It’s possible that in 2000 years, somebody will look back and say, “Well, the process of decline in the United States looks like something that we saw in the Roman Republic before it exploded.”
Time for Constitutional Reform?
Governing: You would want the party that’s regaining power to put forward a constitutional reform program that others can support. Let’s pass a new law, for example, saying that money appropriated by Congress must be spent for the purposes that it was appropriated for. Let’s shore up the guardrails of the Constitution. Do you think that’s the right answer?
Watts: In an ideal world, we create and support these new guardrails, understanding that it’s what our state’s structure is designed to do. And we make sure that we protect the lanes of each aspect of our government, so that each does the things it’s supposed to do. That’s very important. With the way that our Congress looks, the path is really challenging. A lot of the legislators have self-interests that go against those larger principles, and so do a lot of citizens.
Governing: The Democratic Party itself does, too. It’s not clearly a reform party. The reforms I’m talking about would be legislative reforms. Then there are the constitutional reforms addressing the Electoral College, clarifying what we mean by an impeachable offense, clarifying what we mean by the emoluments clause, et cetera. Those are chimeras because we know that a constitutional amendment to address the Electoral College is essentially impossible. The Democratic program is about climate change, a green revolution, a whole series of interesting policies, but at this point, I would rather there be an AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) on the Constitution than an AOC on welfare. But the party doesn’t seem to be especially concerned about those questions.
Watts: You’re right that it feels impossible to reform the Electoral College, but Birch Bayh almost got rid of it in the ’70s. And there were a lot of constitutional amendments that were floated in the ’70s, the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) being the biggest one. They didn’t pass, but there was an open process in which people were willing to engage. I think this feeling that reforms are impossible is pushing Democrats and Republicans away from the questions about how to reinforce the Constitution. And because they feel impossible, I don’t know that it would excite voters.
Governing: But that’s the Faustian bargain, which you earlier said ensures the collapse of the republic. If you think that there’s no way that we can get rid of the Electoral College, you opt to make sure that everyone has free college education by executive order, perhaps taking the money from the defense budget, then you’re hastening the death of the republic.
Good Policy + Bad Implementation = Constitutional Damage
Watts: There are many reasons why you would say that’s a good policy, and there are far more reasons why you should say that the way that policy was executed is incredibly damaging. And those two things can happen at once. That’s what sometimes is missed. It was missed by Roman politicians. Sometimes a good policy that has a good effect and benefits lots of people is carried out in the wrong way, a way that damages the Constitution.
Governing: Like with the Dreamers and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Barack Obama realized that the situation was fundamentally unjust, but he couldn’t get Mitch McConnell’s Congress to act. He finally said, “Well, I’ll just do it.” Isn’t that the very problem we’re talking about?
Watts: And Barack Obama is a constitutional scholar. That’s a remarkable statement in itself, that somebody who values and understands the Constitution would get so frustrated with the inability to constitutionally fix a very clear problem and do good for a large number of people, that he would lose faith in the constitutional order to solve that problem.
A New Civics for a Revived Republic
Governing: Thomas Jefferson understood what was at stake, maybe better than anyone. This only works, he said, if the people are up to it, if the people are well-educated. You can’t have the gifted elite figure this out for you. It has to come from the people’s own understanding of what’s at stake. They don’t have that intuitively, so they have to be trained up to a certain point. If the kind of elite education that you provide were somehow universalized, could it make a fundamental difference?
Watts: I think so. The great movement toward teaching civics in the 20th century mattered. That initiative grew out of the threats of fascism and communism, Nazism and the Cold War and a real sense that if people don’t understand what they’ve got, they’re not going to fight to support it. They’re going to be susceptible to people, to demagogues, who are promising something else. Right now, we’re missing that “something else.” If the Soviet Union were still there and preaching the overthrow of a constitutional order and a revolution that would overwhelm the structures of American society, we would know what’s at stake.
Right now, the argument is one of almost relativism. What do I want now? What benefits us in the short term? We don’t appreciate the constitutional impact and the larger implications because we haven’t doubled down on instructing people on why our system is special. It’s by no means natural to be a republic. But it was a pretty smart choice, given the direction of the country and the challenges the founders were facing. We need to understand why it was and still is a good choice.
The idea of civics education was right, but the narrative was imperfect. What we need is not the narrative that these were great men who did a great thing, but that this is the republican system we have. This is the structure we have. This is why it works. This is what it’s designed to do. We need mechanical civics, not a historicizing, romanticizing and mythological civics.
Governing: It may be a very slow-motion collapse we’re participating in, perhaps a couple hundred years. I don’t see a constitutional reform movement having any traction in this country. How do you see this coming out?
Watts: The structural aspects of a struggling republic really can’t be very easily reformed. People have taken things designed to create consensus and weaponized them to shut down anything that they don’t want to have happen. A constitutional reform movement under current conditions is very hard to see. Some of my students were saying that they’ve been presented with a whole host of impossible problems. They don’t think about them ideologically because ideologically, you can’t solve all of these problems. It’s possible that we’ll get a group of reformers who come up out of the 20- and 30-year-olds who could push things forward in a new way. They will have the demographic heft to do it.
It’s possible to imagine a democratic movement. Not democratic in the sense of the Democratic Party, but a democratic movement that comes out of a younger generation that just says, “We are not ideological because we don’t have time to be ideological; We need to solve problems.” And there are solutions to problems. A lot of the students I interact with feel that way. Maybe they will break the logjam and fundamentally change things. We cannot dismiss the power of personnel turning over in the government. We still have a government dominated by baby boomers. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. But I think changing that personnel, especially given the orientation of some of the younger people in the country right now, might create a shift. I wouldn’t guarantee it, but I could see it happening.
For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book, “Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available on Amazon.com.