The New Caesars, Part III
On the downfall of the Roman Republic
Part I: Introduction
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That said, we’ve taken the paywall off of the introduction to this series on the New Caesarism—the political trend that defines our century. That should give you a good sense of whether you’d find it valuable to subscribe.
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Countries may be afflicted with Caesarism in different ways and to different degrees. Some countries, such as the UK, have had a flirtation with it, but will probably fight it off. Others, such as the United States, are battling a raging infection—it’s touch and go. As the disease matures, countries develop severe Caesarism, which we see in Turkey and Hungary, for example.
So gravely did we conflate democracy and liberalism, not only in our own minds, but in the minds of most of the world, that we’ve achieved the most bitter of foreign policy victories, a victory we cannot even really describe, because our vocabulary is no longer adequate to describe it.
Then there is the end stage of the disease, represented by Putin’s Russia. The disease may be described, at this point, as outright authoritarianism—although note, it is still inaccurate to describe it as fascism, even if there are important points of commonality between Putin’s Russia and the fascist regimes of the 1930s, particularly in the regime’s use of nationalism and ethnic chauvinism as a unifying myth and justification for imperialism. The differences, however, remain significant. Putin still makes a point of holding elections, which he pretends to believe are important. He derives his legitimacy from winning them, even if the elections are anything but free and fair. Nor does Putin ascribe to fascism’s theoretical apparatus. So Russia’s system of governance is still better described as Caesarian, albeit at an advanced stage.
In using the word “stage,” I mean only to suggest that these regimes exist along a continuum. I don’t mean that they inevitably progress from one stage to the next. History has no teleology. No trajectory is inevitable. It’s fully possible for a country to experiment with Caesarism—for example, by electing a politician whose style and rhetoric conforms to the archetype—then recover by punting him out at the next election. But the further the disease progresses, the less likely this is. Over time, the New Caesars bring every countermanding power center under their control, making it harder and harder to oppose them democratically. So early treatment is essential. By the time the Caesar is proposing constitutional referenda, it’s too late. If he wins, it’s game over.1
In the discussion that follows, I describe politicians, parties, and countries that may be described as Caesarian to various degrees. Some countries are much further along the trajectory than others. But there is a trajectory, which is important. You may not recognize your country in all of these descriptions. Perhaps you’ve noticed one or two symptoms. Perhaps your leader’s personality is somewhat Caesarian, but he hasn’t been particularly effective in arrogating all the power to himself. If you’ve told yourself there’s no cause for concern because things still seem quite normal and your liberal traditions are robust, that is, in my view, a mistake. Most countries, once they put someone like this in power, do follow a fairly predictable path, and you’d be astonished how quickly a liberal culture can disappear.2
You may get lucky. But if you ask me, it’s not worth the risk.
The Old Caesarism
I’ve chosen to call this political phenomenon the New Caesarism because it arises in circumstances reminiscent of those that destroyed the Roman Republic. When Lewis Namier used the term Caesarian democracy, the phrase evoked, as it was meant to do, the demise of the Roman Republic at the close of the First Century B.C. Aspects of Caesarian democracy have since reappeared at regular intervals in Western history; Namier was writing of Napoleon III.
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