Post-Constitutional Rule

My politics professor suggests that the definition of a society that has given up on its constitution and adopted some other form of rule (even perhaps while retaining an outward show of loyalty to the constitution) is the rule of Julius Caesar. Plutarch’s Life of Caesar makes the point many times that Caesar totally subverted the Roman republican constitution and turned it into an absolute monarchy by continually pandering to the popular will. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be in the Republic: the popular will was certainly consulted, but it was supposed to be held in a principled balance with the opinions of the few and the wise (the Senate), and the combined judgment aimed at the health of the society exercised by the executive power, the consuls. Caesar changed all that by continually doing end-runs around the Senate and resorting directly to the popular will. Caesar was a gross demagogue who catapulted himself to an absolute, tyrannical power by pretending to care more for the will of the uneducated, disaffected rabble (“the will of the people”) than for wise, virtuous principles and the true common good.

Sounds a lot like contemporary American politics. My professor interestingly points out that the first thing politicians always do today is to talk about their great and magnanimous interest in knowing and fulfilling “the will of the people.” In other words, we are not a constitutional Republic anymore, but a post-constitutional democracy – the worst form of government according to many Ancient writers on politics. Our system retains the outward appearance of the principled entity established by the Founding Fathers, but in reality it is an elaborate system of pandering to the rabble in order to secure power, influence, and affluence for the select few who can outspend, outscream, and out-promise all their rivals. America is run by a manipulative, power-hungry oligarchy who pretend not to be oligarchs by playing on our passions and whims in ways that would make the ancient Sophists blush with envy.

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