Principalities & Powers

Not Really a Republic

Just because it looks like a Republic and quacks like a Republic doesn't mean it's really a Republic. In ancient Rome, after Julius and Augustus Caesar got through with the civil wars, proscriptions, and purges that spelled death to the remains of the old Roman nobility, the state still looked and quacked like the republic it had been in the days of Cincinnatus and Cato the Elder. There were still consuls and vestal virgins and all the other trappings of the old republican constitution. There were still law courts and elections. There was still the shell of the old pagan religion of the sons of Romulus.

But everyone knew it wasn't so, that a century of demagogues and dictators had ruptured the republican duck, that the Caesars had finally polished off the reality of republican government and set up their own sweet little autocracy. "Despotism, enthroned at Rome," wrote historian Ronald Syme in The Roman Revolution, "was arrayed in robes torn from the corpse of the Republic."

So it is today in the United States. The Constitution still exists and remains a standing topic of Fourth of July oratory. We still have elections and even the vestiges of that aristocratic balance wheel, the electoral college. We still have republican (but even today, not really democratic) representation in the Senate.

But, despite the persistence of these republican forms, the reality is quite different—a...

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