On our latest episode of the Departures podcast, we are excited to feature the bestselling history author Edward J. Watts, author of “Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny.”
As the Romans designed it, a representative democracy is designed to ‘move slowly’ and ‘build consensus’ on policies to mitigate societal issues – but if the history of the ancient republic learns us anything, it’s that these problems often emerge more quickly than the policy process can react. In this episode of Departures, Robert Amsterdam and his guest Dr. Watts examine how the procedural trundling of a representative democracy – while grounded in sound principle – can awaken the anger and frustration of the wider polity, and may eventually engender popular support for a more agile alternative.
Today, after 230 years, the United States of America remains the world’s oldest continuous democracy. But is it nearing its expiration? According to Professor Watts, the question at hand (and its answer) isn’t as simple as that. The degeneration of the Roman republic was a process that spanned the several decades that preceded the rise of Tiberius Gracchus, a populist and reformist politician who rose to prominence on a wave of anti-elite discontent amongst the Republic’s commoners, a a radical performance that was hardly welcome amongst the increasingly patrician and exclusive political class.
In the end, Tiberius was assassinated for his politics. But Amsterdam and Watts uncover how the fate of Tiberius was the spark that ignited the most ardent reaction from the plebeians that the ruling class had ever seen – a reaction that eventually produced civil wars and the descent of the republic into autocratic rule. As Watts continues to explain, the ‘mechanisms for building consensus’ in the republic been exploited for personal gain, and the rate and extent of political polarization amongst representatives and their constituents led to a gridlock in governance and societal progress.
Much like Tiberius’s fate, the rapid demise of the republic that followed was executed through violent, extra-constitutional means – an episodic conclusion which makes the natural parallels between Tiberius and Donald Trump, or the political climates of the Roman republic and the United States all the more terrifying.
But is Rome, an ancient empire, really all that comparable to the modern United States? As Dr. Watts explains in this episode, comparing the two republics is a healthy exercise – despite their differing circumstances – because they share a crucial similarity: a hubristic assumed notion of permanence, where a proud and triumphant democratic history is understood to be the only necessary antecedent to a proud and triumphant democratic future.
I hope you enjoy this episode as much as we did – let us know your thoughts in the iTunes comments and help others discover our show.