Soul of the Republic


Exhibition at the Grand Palace. “Me, Augustus, Emperor of Rome” (19 March 2014-13 July 2014) Around 44 BC. Julius Caesar, white marble. (Credit: Gautier Poupeau)

Consider for a moment that the way we communicate is an expression of who we are or are becoming. Do we communicate as a democratic people, as citizens of a republic, and/or as subjects of an empire—perhaps increasingly less as democratic citizens and more as imperial subjects, marking the impending loss of the soul of the republic?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency chronicled the systematic growth of presidential power since the founding of the republic, a trend that has increased since the book’s publication in 1973. Jeffrey Tulis and his colleagues followed suit in 1981 and 1987 with a discussion of the rise of the rhetorical presidency and its deleterious effects on republican government.[1] Demagoguery and government by mood, in Tulis’s view, mark rhetoric as a degraded form of political communication that undermines the interests of the public and destabilizes the political system. Of course, not all rhetoric is demagogic, but rule by presidential mass persuasion that bypasses the deliberative function of the Congress, by this estimation, erodes the constitution of the republic. While I have criticized the elitism of the rhetorical presidency thesis in general terms,[2] the present degraded state of presidential rhetoric clearly is deleterious to the prospects of representative democracy and the future of the republic.

The problem is not rhetoric itself. We conveniently accuse opponents of resorting to rhetoric, a label we do not apply to ourselves. Yet, rhetoric is necessary to politics, one might say to social life generally. Some kinds of rhetorical practice, however, are corrosive to democratic relations and representative self-governance. Demagoguery is of that degrading kind. It reflects and constructs a predisposition to authoritarian rule.

Having recently returned from a visit to the remains of the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill, I find the question of transition too palpable to ignore. Julius Caesar and his populist-authoritarianism comes to mind as the figure of transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Imperialism, militarism, and corruption were rendering the republic ineffectual. A civil war following Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon with his Legion gave him unrivaled power and control of the government. He was named dictator of the republic, a republic never restored following his assassination in 44 BC by disgruntled aristocrats. Caesar’s successor, Augustus, became the first Roman Emperor after prevailing in a series of civil wars.

The analogy is suggestive, not exact. We might make too much or too little of it. Perhaps it is best considered a cautionary tale. Perhaps we should ask if the present state of our political rhetoric indicates a movement from imperial president to emperor and if there is some way to restore the democratic discourse of the republic before that happens.



[1] James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis, and Joseph M Bessette, “The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11 (1981): 158-71; Jeffrey K. Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton University Press, 1987).

[2] Robert L. Ivie, “Tragic Fear and the Rhetorical Presidency: Combating Evil in the Persian Gulf,” in Beyond the Rhetorical Presidency, ed. Martin J. Medhurst (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996), pp. 153-178, 246-249.

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