What Does Transitioning From Republic to Empire Tell Us About America's Future?

[This short post is intended to set up a discussion series on the long-term consequences of a transition from an American republican regime to an imperial one. This discussion includes defining the constitutional heart of a republic and comparing its essence to that of an imperial constitutional system. The essential dynamic of both republic and empire lies in the sources of legitimacy and the working protocols of succession. It is in the transformation that ancient Rome has the most to tell us.]

The United States is in the midst of an historical transformation from a republic to an empire. The passage has been moving the nation for a generation and is far from complete. Yet even now we can discern the outlines of the future imperial order. We all know what a republic is: a constitutional order in which the community of citizens are represented by delegates forming a deliberative body of rule, e.g., a Diet, Parliament, Assembly, Senate or Congress. The constitutional order is not executive-centered, i.e., there is no King. Hence, rather than a monarch as source of legitimacy, ruling authority resides in the representative body of citizens. The executive — Prime Minister, President, Doge, Stadtholder, Consul, etc. — has no claim in their person to constitutional legitimacy. The right to rule flows from the people. Empire, in contrast, is executive-centered; in other words, the legitimacy of the state and its succession reposes in the imperial person. The Senate (Curia) supports and speaks for the needs of political factions — by petitioning or otherwise trying to leverage the emperor — yet the constitutional role of those factions, and the body of "the people," is in acclamation. Hence, the senate and the people play only a ritual part in renewing the legitimacy of the state, by acclaiming the new emperor in a collective, performative ritual that establishes and then transfers legitimacy to the emperor. The difference between republican and imperial legitimacy is stark and crucial. In republics, legitimacy always resides in the people, and must flow from them. In empire, it is ritually and symbolically transferred from people to emperor. Why the need for ritual and symbol at all? This is critical: All empire flows from republic, and thus, imperial legitimacy requires republican anointment. In other words, legitimizing absolute rule absolutely requires conveying the original source of legitimacy, the republic, to the new emperor through acclamation: Ritual and symbolic laying on of citizen hands. Empire desperately needs to maintain the fiction that the old republic still stands. They will go to any lengths to lavish extraordinary rituals on the people — to convince them that nothing has changed, that all is as it was, and will forever be. In ancient Rome, the first imperial dynasty — the Julio-Claudians — went to great lengths to reassure (increasingly parasitical) Roman citizens, and the Roman Senate, that they were equal partners in moving forward the authority of the state. Likewise, the Flavian dynasty, and Vespasian, followed in Augustus' footsteps, as did the Antonine. The United States Government has been masterful at orchestrating the high, holy ritual of quadrennial elections — at least until the COVID election of 2020. Moreover, the ritual acclamation of 20 January was forever spoilt by the Damnatio Memoriae of 6 January: Setting up the basis, moving forward, for existential rituals — pro and contra — for battles over national legitimacy to come. Finally, we must never forget the deeper reason why republics fail: Elites. Simply, over centuries of republican success, they become too rich, too ambitious, too greedy, and too uncontrolled by the constitutional order — and they go about tearing the old apart, just to make themselves (in Tom Wolfe's words), Masters of the Universe. At some point, their accumulation of wealth, and their concentration of power, moves this class in the certain direction of empire. For elites, empire is a sure thing. Think about it: You (the Big Men) control the money the emperor so desperately needs. Furthermore, you want a system that artlessly marginalizes the old republic's idea of the citizen: A man ready and willing to take up arms, at a moment's notice, to defend home and hearth is a dangerous man. What is needed is the citizen who might be bought off, relieved of his military duties, and paid to be a passive-politics voice — at least until time comes to acclaim a new emperor. Today, the handful of American counties that elected Mr. Biden (500 vs. 2500 for Mr. Trump) have 75% of the nation's wealth, while the billionaire dukes, who actually call the shots, have 4-5 times more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans. An emperor system protects elite wealth, and insures that they can dominate the emperor's mind through effective lobbying. Emperors, too, in contrast to an uncontrolled legislative body, can rely on oligarchic caution and support. So the stakes for our nation point relentlessly in the direction of empire. Looking ahead, I am planning to write a series of posts in the next couple weeks on:

  • The changing nature of national succession in the future, focusing on the germinating conditions for a real (as opposed to rhetorical) coup d'etat

  • The increasingly critical role of the military in national politics generally, and the quadrennial succession crisis, in particular

  • The crucial role of world empire in sustaining (and entrenching) elite control in American society

  • The specter of rising, endemic public violence and street conflict that is designed to feed into an unraveling political process

  • The coming bitter battle over the courts: In terms of 1) How circuit and supreme membership can be altered, and 2) How courts are inevitably intimidated when a regime seeks their evisceration

  • The pathways that will emerge for states and counties to assert every greater local authority, while selectively nullifying the most tyrannical elements of Federal power