The American Oligarchs

The political history and mores of the late Roman Republic shed interesting light on the current governing elite in DC and the state of the American republic.

In his classic study of the last days of the Roman Republic titled The Roman Revolution, Sir Ronald Syme presents a scholarly yet vivid account of how Rome lost its republic after it had gained an empire. Beginning around 60 B.C., Sir Ronald reveals how the nearly five hundred year old republican institutions of the cit were finally consumed in a massive blaze of civil wars, partisan politics, individual political ambition, and a complete loss of restraint and adherence to tradition.

Sir Ronald's chronicle of the last days of the Roman Republic, the only republic of historical significance to precede our own, sheds interesting light on the present state of the American republic. Sir Ronald makes clear that for most of the later Republican period, Rome was governed by an oligarchy comprised of two political factions. These were composed of men who belonged to the same ruling class and who had the same goals: power and prestige for themselves, their families, and their personal political operatives, and favors for their adherents (clientelae). These two rival factions claimed to support policies favorable, on the one hand, to the aristocratic and moneyed interests and the Senate (the optimates; the Sulla-Pompey faction), and on the other hand to the interests of the plebeians and the popular assemblies (the populares; the Marius-Caesar faction). In reality these political programs were used by the politicians as a means of obtaining crucial votes for important government offices or appointment to powerful positions of state, both civil and military, which any aspiring oligarch had to obtain on his road to power. They also provided a base of support for the individual oligarch's personal political power and influence, what the Romans termed auctoritas, which the oligarch had to acquire in order to be able to take a meaningful part in public affairs.

Despite the differing political programs of the two factions, what was always of primary interest to each individual oligarch was his auctoritas, which determined his overall standing in the oligarchic clique that ruled Rome. As in the case of all cliques, things were rigged in such a way that the road to power and influence was only open to members of a well-established network of Roman good old boys (which periodically admitted outsiders like Cicero). These advanced their interests via the utilization of a well-oiled machine of extensive political, social and economic patronage and alliances based upon an equally complex web of extended family relationships, friendships, and social connections. Money was the essential grease of the oligarch's machine. Elections and the provision of amusements, grain, and games (the major entitlements of the ancient Roman populace) were an expensive matter, not to mention the desire for personal enrichment, if not of the oligarch himself, then of his family, friends and allies. The most successful oligarch not only acquired auctoritas, but also dignitas. This implied a certain greatness of spirit, a desire to maintain one's good name and reputation at all costs, and a degree of moral and ethical standing which guaranteed the adherence to certain highly prized principles. A proper Roman oligarch never checked his dignitas at the door.

We Americans are presently being governed (and have been for some time) by a political oligarchy. Whether it be Republican or Democratic, its primary purpose and goal is both its own preservation and the acquisition and maintenance of the auctoritas of each member of the oligarchy, while viewing the rest of us like the Roman plebs. American plebians which serve the oligarchs as a source of power and which must be flattered and wooed every few years during elections but which are otherwise unfit to have any political power or independence of their own. Hence the disdain of Boehner, McCain, Rove et al. for the Tea Party or for non-oligarchs like Cruz or Bachmann, and the focus of these Republican party leaders on the preoccupations and prejudices of the long established DC-based oligarchy as the only matters of importance or relevance in their political and social lives. The same thing of course applies to the Democratic oligarchs. The rules of membership in the DC oligarchy explain the behavior of politicians like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio, who seem to have disappointed the many conservatives who thought that they were reliable supporters of the conservative cause. Ryan and Rubio are rising oligarchs; a review of their careers reveals both of them to be party men who have spent virtually their entire professional lives in the halls of government. No ambitious oligarch will cross his patrons or the party hierarchy and machinery, which would be suicidal when one's goal is to obtain power and prestige. Thus Ryan will not buck Boehner, and Rubio will not buck the Senate Republican leadership, to whom they owe their present prominence and appointments.

Dignitas is one very important characteristic of the ancient Roman oligarch that is lacking in present day American politicians. Any need or desire on the part of the contemporary American oligarch to cultivate dignitas was destroyed by politicians like the Kennedys, LBJ, and Bill Clinton.

Recurrent contemporary appeals for bipartisanship resemble a call for a kind of concordia factionum (a harmony of political parties) along the lines of what Cicero used to call the concordia ordinum (a harmony of the social orders). But any contemporary concordia factionum would be no more than a mirage. Just as the longstanding Roman power-sharing arrangement finally broke down to leave Caesar and his successors as the exclusive holders of power in the state, so the Democrats are presently seeking a total subjugation of the country to their progressive platform. Clueless Republican oligarchs have not yet figured out that the rules of the game have permanently changed and the old comfortable power-sharing arrangement between the oligarchs of the two parties is no longer of interest to the Democrats.

Sir Ronald Syme states that the traditional Roman oligarchy was fine for ruling a city-state, but was a wholly ineffective way to govern the huge empire that Rome had acquired. The traditional Republican oligarchy eventually collapsed, with the pieces first falling into the lap of Caesar the Dictator (which marked the end of the Republic), and subsequently was definitively abolished by Octavian, the so-called "first among equals" (primus inter pares) who passed into history as Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire. Under Augustus and his successors the Roman Republican institutions were respected and observed de jure, but de facto all effective power passed into the hands of the Emperor and his advisors and administrators forever.

The question then inevitably comes to mind: has the nature of America and its people changed to the point where our nation can no longer be governed de facto in accordance the principles of the Constitution? Are those of us who still pine for the American Republic on the road to obsolescence as surely as were Caesar's assassin Brutus and his fellow conspirators? I do not believe we have crossed that critical threshold yet, but we are perilously close. However, at this point any restoration of the republic will have to come from outside the oligarchy, from a new and vigorous party wholly dedicated to getting the job done. There is still time to turn away from the Roman precedent, if that is what Americans still want.

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