Wednesday, January 11, 2012


January 11, 2012:

"A republic, Madame, if you can keep it."

That was Benjamin Franklin's famous reply when, after the Constitutional Convention came to an end in Philadelphia, a woman asked him what kind of government they had fashioned. A republic, if we can keep it, and I am beginning to think we cannot. At the time the chief authority on republics was the French philosophe the Baron de Montesquieu, who had made an extensive study of the forms of government from antiquity on; he wrote in The Spirit of the Laws that "It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country."

It's too bad only scholars read Montesquieu any more. He was clear eyed on the problems of government and he understood the principal problem facing a republic: the power of private wealth. There were no corporations when he wrote, only individuals, and the wealthy ones tended to be aristocrats with huge tracts of land whose income derived from what the French call rente, not from industry. We have no titled aristocrats and wealth no longer comes from land, but the amount of private wealth, private interests, on the loose in this country and its propensity to aggrandize itself at the expense of ordinary citizens has multiplied enormously since the 18th century. Corporations are not persons, despite the Supreme Court, but persons run them, and we deceive ourselves if we think they have the interests of the country at heart. They are, for the most part, multinational. They serve their own interests. To do that, they buy political power in Washington, and it works well for them. They get what they want, which is the freedom to do what they want--with the resources that theoretically belong to the republic; with the environment we all share; and with our money. I remember Engine Charlie Wilson's statement back in the 1950s that "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." Engine Charlie was the head of General Motors before he became Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, and his remark proved prophetic; General Motors was one of those private interests that was "too big to fail" and got bailed out in 2008. Like the banks, which were also "too big to fail." They were, indeed, too big to fail. "Persons" all, they had become far more important to the way things are than the ordinary persons who lost their homes and their jobs in the Great Recession that is still going on.

I sometimes wonder when, approximately, the United States stopped being a republic in Montesquieu's classic sense. Charles Sellers dated what he called the "market revolution" from the 1830s, and personal fortunes in the modern sense, market fortunes, the beginnings of industrial fortunes, did begin to appear then. Robert Caro, in the third volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, has a section on the history of the Senate that dates the beginning of its decline as a deliberative body to about the same time, and the term "self-made man" made its appearance, via Henry Clay, in I believe 1828. A classic republic is very hard to keep. It requires not only a certain moderation in size, but a moderation in its citizens' ambitions--a spirit of equality, that is--and a level of vigilance that only an educated public can sustain. We are not, obviously, an educated public, and the level of education is dropping rapidly in comparison to other modernized countries. This is only a sign of the low status we assign to intellectual achievement, and our indifference to it. Far too many of us think the goal of life is to make the most money and have the most toys. The so-called American Dream, which used to be about creating equal opportunities, a level playing field, in the context of a republican form of government that did its best to guarantee fairness in the game of life, is drifting over the horizon. We no longer have the kind of leaders we can be proud of. The current Republican contenders for the Presidency are pathetic; even Republicans are uneasy with them and the front-runner comes out of corporate life and has a history of destroying businesses and jobs for the sake of profit.

Maybe it's time to bury the corpse. My like-minded friends and I sometimes joke about moving abroad, to another country, if 2012 puts someone like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich into the oval office. But we also joke about cutting the ties that bind, letting the part of the country that wants to regulate not industry but people's lives, that wants to put religion where it never was, in the U. S. Constitution, that has no tolerance for gays, for Moslems, for difference of any kind, that hates government and blames it for all the self-inflicted ills they suffer from, that thinks the theory of evolution is an abomination and the Bible the only book you ever need--let that part of the nation, I say, have its own country to do with what they will. I suggest they get Texas and the South. Let them secede. The very next Republican primary is in South Carolina, which was the first to secede from the Union in 1861; maybe secession should be on the agenda in the debates. The republic is dead and gone, and money killed it, just as Montesquieu said it would. What we have now is something different, something shameful. The Founders would have called it unAmerican. They would have been right to do so.