In the modern West, the republic is the most popular mode of government. The modern liberal democratic status quo would have us believe that the republic—or more specifically, “representative democracy”—is the superior mode of government among all others. All other forms of government, monarchies in particular, says the modern liberal, are tyrannical and backwards.
The word “republic” has its roots in Latin, the res publica, meaning “public thing,” or “public affair” in a literal sense. In ancient Rome, the res publica referred more broadly to the whole commonwealth, or state. The Roman Republic was, indeed, intended to be a public affair, a government of the people. The ancient acronym, SPQR, stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and People of Rome).
Immediately, we notice a slight philosophical similarity between Enlightenment-era thought and ancient Rome’s republican period. Indeed, in order for any republic to be a genuine republic, it must, in both a philosophical and practical sense, derive its power from the body of citizens that it is tasked with governing. Without this trait, the core premise of the res publica is nullified.
This is, however, far easier said than done, and because of this, there is a dark side to the res publica that is rarely discussed in the mainstream Western political sphere. In this essay, we will explore that dark side. More specifically, we will explore what I will call a number of “dispositions” that are specific to the res publica as a mode of government.
The crutch that is revealed through these dispositions is that the res publica, unlike other modes of government, is its need to “thread the needle,” meaning, to achieve a healthy balance between democracy and aristocracy; libertarianism and authoritarianism; and on and on. Even the slightest upset to this balance can, if not corrected in a timely manner, lead the res publica astray. Considering what most of history has shown of this mode of government, it is certainly true that republics can quickly devolve from legitimate, noble efforts of a citizenry to govern itself in accordance with virtue, to ideological fever dreams of rogue democracies, oligarchies, and other tyrannies of the like. Even more interestingly, though, is that these dispositions can also be mutually reinforcing; meaning, that one disposition can be the natural conclusion of another.
The Democratic Disposition
We have already established that a genuine republic is one that incorporates practical methods for living up to its core premise: being a government of, for, and by the people. Without this core trait, the res publica does not actually exist.
Plenty of totalitarian states disingenuously label themselves as republics, but are nevertheless unaccountable to their citizenry, and are therefore tyrannies in republican clothing. Countries such as Iran (a theocracy in republican clothing), North Korea (a military dictatorship in republican clothing), and China (an oligarchy in republican clothing) all officially identify themselves as republics. These states, however, are all governed by one perpetual party that remains in power regardless of what the people under their yoke have to say on the matter.
Therefore, it can be said that in order for a republic to be a genuine republic, representatives must be elected by democratic means. However, we must also settle a common misconception found among many Americans and Westerners: All republics, generally, are democratic to a certain extent, but not all representative democracies are republics. In other words, “representative democracy” is far from the only prerequisite for a genuine republic, and dare I say a criminally overrated aspect of any republic.
Before we go further, take a moment to consider James Madison in Federalist No. 10:
“In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.” (My emphasis).
In other words, for a republic to remain a just form of government, it must achieve a balance in representation: A number of representatives adequate for the enfranchisement of the whole polity and prevention of oligarchy, but also few enough to prevent the confusion, dissension, and tyranny of the multitude.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, noticed the worrying trend of the latter. Tocqueville observed that the more representatives there were and the more those representatives blindly obliged the masses on every issue, the quality of said representation was held in higher regard. This is what Tocqueville termed the “moral empire” of the majority. In other words, Tocqueville’s observation was that in democracies, the majority always believes that it is correct by virtue of majoritarian power alone.
But if representatives are merely there to blindly obey the wishes of the masses they represent, lest they be democratically ousted from public office, then what is the actual point of representative government? The representatives themselves are reduced from sovereign individuals trusted with a sacred public responsibility to mere conduits for majoritarian whim. The majority is subsequently brought into the statehouse, nullifying the representative model as a whole.
Democracy in America wonderfully displayed the American public’s near-cultish infatuation with democracy in the 19th century. In 2022, Tocqueville’s observations are still dead-on. But even more so, Tocqueville, perhaps inadvertently, spoke to a particular problem with republics in general: one of the greatest enemies of the res publica lies in its core functions (democratic representation), or rather, its democratic disposition.
A republic must be democratic only insofar as it is required to fulfill the basic premise of such mode of government, to remain accountable to the polity from which it was (supposedly) ordained in the first place. But it must also be aristocratic insofar as checking and balancing (remember those words?) majoritarian impulses are required.
This was one of the key problems that plagued the Constitutional Convention of 1787. How far, exactly, should the rule of the majority extend? To what extent should majoritarian power be diffused? This conversation alone is a long and tumultuous one, but it is that very tumultuousness that underscores the inherent problem with the res publica: the needle must be threaded perfectly. In the case of the democratic disposition, an excessively empowered majority ought to be avoided, lest its “moral empire” be allowed to devour everything in its path.
The Oligarchic Disposition
The notion of “threading the needle” also applies to the res publica’s oligarchic disposition. Just like how a proper republican must be wary of demagoguery from the majority, he must also be aware of the equally severe chance of demagoguery from the rule of a few. Curiously, as we will see, the democratic disposition of the res publica may naturally conclude (or devolve) into the oligarchic.
In the world’s oldest continuously operating republic, the United States, Americans have long since been a people priding themselves on being a “beacon of democracy.” In the American psyche, democracy is often synonymous with “liberty,” or “freedom,” or simply “good.”
But every day, America grows increasingly less indicative of a genuine republic and more representative of an oligarchy. This oligarchy, as we will see, originates chiefly in two main points made in this essay: the system of checks and balances within the American Constitution failing to maintain the federal government’s separation of powers, and as a result of that failure, the cathedral.
Given that the cathedral is seen chiefly as a byproduct of democracy devolving into oligarchy, it makes sense to attribute its origins to America’s evolution from the aristocratic republicanism ordained by the Constitution of 1787 to the modern era, in which most Americans are unable to reconcile the words “aristocratic” and “republic” in the same sentence.
Interrogating the Constitution
A tradition among most American conservatives is to defend the Constitution indiscriminately, regardless of its flaws, however obvious they may be. To criticize the Constitution in modern conservative discourse is almost seen as sacrilegious in some cases. This is somewhat understandable, as there is certainly no shortage of intellectually dishonest critiques of the Constitution. Indeed, when those on the left rail against the Constitution, they often do so by constructing partisan and inaccurate narratives about our history. Conservatives are rightly disgusted by the left’s insistence that the American Republic was nothing more than a white supremacist power grab orchestrated by a group of no-nothing, old racist white men. When these critiques are as popular as they are today, it becomes easy for the conservative to dismiss any critique whatsoever.
Nevertheless, the Constitution has glaring flaws that will help us to understand both the virtues and vices of the res publica. However, such a critique should not be misconstrued as a condemnation of the American Founding or the framers themselves. The framers were, indeed, extremely well-studied men, perhaps the most capable of their generation, and the American Republic ought to be seen as the greatest attempt to create a republic to date.
But the framers failed. The cathedral is not the problem, but rather a symptom of this failure. This failure rests chiefly in the Constitution’s separation of powers, or, rather, the system of “checks and balances” that exists to maintain that separation. With this, we encounter a crucial distinction that must be acknowledged before going forward: the Constitution’s separation of powers and checks and balances are often assumed to be one and the same, but they most-assuredly are not. Rather, these are actually two separate things.
Any government can ordain a system in which each branch is “separate”—in that each branch enjoys a co-equal distinction, being charged with specific functions that are unique to that individual branch. The system of checks and balances was specifically developed to maintain the separation of powers. Without this system, there is nothing to stop one branch from devouring the other two branches, or vice-versa.
Though the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is often seen as a compromise between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, the Constitution could by and large be seen as a Federalist brainchild. The particular debate about what was to constitute the executive branch was a fierce one, divided between the Federalists who desired a robust executive unbeholden to the legislature, and the Anti-Federalists, who wanted a more legislative-centric government.
On the surface, the Federalist model is desirable. The executive should, generally speaking, have the power to execute and enforce the Constitution and laws of the United States without excessive legislative hindrance. Properly understood, the theory of the unitary executive is desirable when interpreting the Constitution. Article II, after all, quite plainly vests “the executive power” in “a President of the United States.” This means that the executive branch is subordinate to the president. Whatever actions or directives the president takes, all personnel and agencies within the executive branch must follow suit.
But somewhere along the line, the pursuit of a unitary executive devolved into something self-evidently not unitary. Stephen F. Knott, in his The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal, gives us a great summary of the American presidency’s evolution: from a constitutional presidency of “sober expectations” ordained by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, to the popular presidency, a process catalyzed by Thomas Jefferson and later accelerated by Andrew Jackson.
Washington, being inspired by the Federalist Papers and with Hamilton as his closest advisor, sought to embody the presidency in strict accordance with Federalist principles. Hamilton’s Federalist No. 70 laid the groundwork for what he termed an “energetic executive”: an executive branch with one person in charge (as opposed to multiple executives, as had been proposed during the Constitutional Convention), capable of acting swiftly and decisively to properly execute the Constitution and laws of the United States. To do this, said Hamilton, the president must act independently of the majority. As Hamilton said in Federalist No. 68, heading this new executive branch would require far more than just the “little arts of popularity.”
But after 12 years of Federalist rule (or, rather, eight years of effective Federalist rule by George Washington and four years of ineffective rule by John Adams), Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans would set the presidency on a collision course with the people. With some calling his election the “Revolution of 1800,” Jefferson stood in direct opposition to Hamilton et al., believing that the only legitimate form of government was that of democratic rule. Any republic that did not rely solely on democratic participation, said Jefferson, was a bad republic. Jefferson himself was a radical even by American Revolutionary standards. He considered the Constitution of 1787 to be inadequate at best, and further maintained that a new constitution would have to be drawn up every 20 to 30 years to allow newer generations the chance of governing themselves. The living, said Jefferson, ought not to be governed by the dead.
Jefferson also passively advocated for the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, which required presidential candidates to win a majority of the Electoral College as opposed to a plurality, setting the stage for what would eventually become our present-day two-party system.
After dubbing the controversial election of 1824 as a “corrupt bargain”—in which Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams in a House vote after both candidates failed to win a majority in the Electoral College—the Jacksonians would use that rhetoric for the next four years to fuel their ascension to the presidency in 1828. By that point, the vast majority of the states had begun allowing their electors to be chosen by the people directly, as opposed to the state legislatures. As such, Jackson’s presidency would come to be known as a period that brought unprecedented democratization to the American political process.
More profoundly, though, is the solidification of the president as a popular figure, a man of the people. “The majority is to govern,” Jackson declared in his first address to Congress. The presidency of Washington and Hamilton was lost. Just about every president since then, and especially every president in modern times, has had to appeal directly to the majority for legitimacy.
But the more the president became the embodiment of the will of the people, the more insignificant Congress would become. Even more so, Congress has now delegated much of its legislative power to agencies within the executive branch. The result is an increasingly legislative executive in which unelected bureaucrats across 15 federal departments can make or change policy with almost no accountability from the people.
Curiously, though, despite the broadened powers of the office, it seems the president’s power is directly proportional to his ability to persuade the masses who put him there and his ability to command the Frankenstein bureaucracy that is the modern executive. A president’s failure to do the latter was seen when Miles Taylor, former chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security for the Trump administration, published an op-ed in The New York Times proclaiming himself to be part of the “resistance inside the Trump administration.” Such an event is indicative of the uncomfortable truth that the president can easily be rendered a prisoner of his own post if those within the executive bureaucracy decide to rebel against him.
This erosion of the separation of powers ordained by the Constitution has given way not only to a “fourth branch” of the federal government, as some would call it, but more profoundly an oligarchy of both public and private actors, in which institutions from both sectors regularly collude with one another.
Curtis Yarvin, a political theorist formerly writing under the pseudonym “Mencius Moldbug,” coined the term “cathedral” to describe the relationship between the government, mainstream media, and academia. The cathedral, says Yarvin, is an interconnected and yet decentralized bureaucracy of institutions; meaning, the institutions function as separate entities and yet behave as one.
We can start by interrogating the present-day functions of Congress, which delegates much of its legislative duties to a vast array of federal agencies in the executive branch. These agencies are not elected, but appointed by the president and the various secretaries of each federal “department,” and are entrusted near-legislative discretion by Congress to whimsically make and change countless federal regulations that have massive sway over national affairs.
The problem here is that Congress has effectively leaked a significant part of its power (and hence a significant part of its sovereignty as a co-equal branch of the federal government) to the executive branch.
America’s present-day political polarization only makes matters worse. With Congress growing increasingly deadlocked by hyperpartisanship, the elected representatives grow increasingly powerless in the face of a growing oligarchy of federal bureaucrats who are able to levy near-legislative power to make and shape policy without being accountable to the people.
Even more so, when Congress is unable to function as intended, the president is all the more incentivized (and forced) to act in a dangerously unilateral fashion. Modern presidents signing exorbitant amounts of executive orders (which curiously, is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution as one of the president’s enumerated powers) have become commonplace in American politics. The most recent example was President Biden signing 42 executive orders within the first few weeks of his presidency, most of them overturning Trump-era executive orders.
Regardless of political party, every president (in the modern era, at least), has acted in a stunningly unilateral fashion through executive orders, even after pledging to seek the consent of Congress. Executive orders, especially without a functioning Congress, can have massive sway over national affairs, whether it be the economy, immigration, or any other issue that is so typically in contention.
We should not, however, make the mistake of designating the president as the de-facto head of this unaccountable bureaucracy. The president has term limits, and after his temporary custody of his office has expired, a new president will take his place. His executive orders will be overwritten by the next man in power, and so-on.
Considering the things we have discussed so far, one might make the mistake of designating the modern American president as an autocrat, but he is as much a prisoner of this unaccountable federal bureaucracy as any other elected magistrate. Executive orders can only go so far, and in the end, the sheer size of the modern executive branch is too large to be headed by any one person, practically speaking. The presidency, not the president, has grown far beyond the enumerated confines originally set by the Constitution of 1787.
This oligarchy also extends far beyond the government itself. We now know, through the subsequent publishing of the “Twitter Files,” self-evident ideological bias in modern academia, and the general efforts by government and corporate forces alike to control speech and cater to one side of the aisle, that the American oligarchy is actually a decentralized web of various elite institutions, both public and private.
When the federal government, for instance, provides favorable conditions to a handful of large pharmaceutical companies through its poorly written patent laws, said companies take on an uncharacteristically political role in what is supposedly a “free” market. A de-facto prescription drug oligopoly has long since been in place as a result, and regularly manipulates drug prices while stamping out competition from generic brands. The end-result is a legalized prescription drug racket with very little competition and price control.
The problem here is not “capitalism,” or a failed “laissez faire” system gone haywire, as many on the left would tell you, but actually the complete opposite. The problem, properly understood, is the federal government leaking a significant portion of its power (and hence, a significant portion of its sovereignty) to the pharmaceutical industry.
This pattern of “power leakage,” a term originally coined by Yarvin, repeats in basically every instance of collaboration between the federal establishment and the private actors that usually wind up doing its bidding. When the FBI uses Twitter as a private organ to carry out its wrong speak edicts, the social media company effectively becomes an overtly political organ in what would otherwise be a non-political space.
This is not to say that all instances of private cooperation with the federal government are detrimental. Social media platforms, for instance, should absolutely collaborate with federal law enforcement in the reporting, and subsequent prosecution of those who commit genuinely heinous crimes over the internet, or use their platforms to facilitate their criminal activities in any way.
In seeking to dismantle the American oligarchy, we should not in the process, mistake genuine forms of government intervention and collaboration for the tyrannical aspects of oligarchy mentioned earlier. In the end, reasonable men must use their judgment, being careful not to upset every oldfangled aristocracy at once, lest a new tyranny subsequently arise from the ashes of the old.
There are a whole host of names that have been coined when referring to this decentralized oligarchy. Whether it be the “Deep State,” “Regime,” or “Cabal,” or anything else, Yarvin’s thoughts on this matter are not ideationally novel. However, Yarvin’s term, the “cathedral,” is perhaps the most accurate descriptor. The cathedral is, essentially, what has just been described: a decentralized bureaucracy of both public and private institutions. This bureaucracy has no center, meaning, there is no central group of people coordinating it.
The defining feature of the cathedral, aside from its decentralization, is that it always agrees with itself. Every large and prestigious institution, whether it be The New York Times, The Washington Post, Google, Amazon, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or Facebook, all seem to agree with one another without fail. Again, these institutions are all separate from one another, but in general, they often collaborate as one unit.
This pattern is so profound, that only those who actually operate inside of these institutions can properly discern their differences. To the outsider, Harvard and Yale look more or less the same. Only a Yale man would be able to discern the differences between his alma mater and Harvard, and vice-versa (“Differences” in this sense, would mean the general temperament and ideological similarities as exemplified in the decisions these institutions make, and the actions they take). Why, for instance, Yarvin asks, do the vast majority of colleges and universities in America lean significantly to the left? Why is the same generally the case for most of America’s mainstream media? Why do most social media platforms (with a recent exception of Twitter) seem to disproportionately censor right-wing views?
The Imperial Disposition
Implicit in the res publica is also the imperial disposition, or rather, the desire for empire. Ancient Rome’s rise to power was characterized mainly by the conquest of its neighbors and later on distant lands beyond the Italian peninsula. Tired as America vs. Rome comparisons may be, it is here where both nations seem to parallel the most; and considering Rome was generally the world’s first republic, and the United States being the strongest iteration of such mode of government since, it makes sense to draw from the many ills of the ancient Romans when informing ourselves about the merits and demerits of the res publica.
The authoritarian personality considered
A general theme within the imperial disposition of the res publica that ought to be considered is what, for the purpose of this essay, will be termed the authoritarian personality. The authoritarian personality merely refers to the inner demagogue in every “democracy-loving” citizen within the res publica. For most republicans, it seems, especially in times of war or conflict, desire a strongman (or Caesar-like figure) to lead the way. History has shown that in republics, people will gladly elect such figures indefinitely when promised an ascension into the Earthly Paradise.
The Romans elected Julius Caesar to the consulship and, due to his expanded war powers, allowed him to become the permanent dictator of Rome, ending the republic and inaugurating the empire. Though the American Constitution makes such a maneuver by a president impossible, the increasingly legislative power of the executive branch reveals a worryingly similar trend in American politics. Even though there are easily more constitutional safeguards against abuses of power in the American republic than its ancient Roman predecessor, the authoritarian personality is present nevertheless. Americans have shown numerous times that they are content with a president who promises sweeping action through executive orders or other quasi-legislative measures, so long as he is seen as a “man of the people.” This tendency is not specific to any political party, and has been shown to predominate both the Republican and Democratic parties, as neither faction can survive without appealing to the masses for legitimacy.
Just like how the United States has risen to global hegemony through economic and military might, so did Rome. Like Rome, the United States imposed its power upon countries far beyond its own borders to expand its influence and access to resources.
Most profoundly, though, is both civilizations’ trend toward globalization. We ought to clarify, of course, that Rome was only “globalized” insofar as globalization was possible in antiquity. But even when acknowledging the obvious differences between antiquity and the modern era, there are striking similarities.
Both the United States and Rome, for instance, did not attempt to impose their cultures upon those they conquered in any significant way. A natural consequence of this was, especially in the late Roman Empire, a lack of cultural cohesion. Rome also imported slave labor to the homeland from its many conquests, allowing wealthy patricians to take advantage of free labor. With the patricians having previously employed plebeians, many Roman citizens were disenfranchised as a result of Rome’s importation of slave labor. Roman soldiers, when returning from their various military campaigns across Europe, would often return to find that their farms had been converted into massive plantations labored entirely by slaves.
While American workers were not disenfranchised from the importation of slave labor, they have been disenfranchised by the mass exportation of jobs overseas due to the rise of modern globalization and the incentive for transnational corporations to pack their things and move elsewhere. While the circumstances are different, there is in both scenarios a significant pattern of the gradual socio-economic disenfranchisement of the native citizenry through rampant expansion and conquest.
The democratic, oligarchic, and imperial dispositions of the res publica are evident in most, if not all instances of republican government throughout history. A republic may be afflicted with all three of these dispositions, or just one of the three, or anywhere else in between. But of course, any one of these dispositions can naturally devolve or conclude into another.
Unlike other modes of government, as was stated in the beginning of this essay, the republic must “thread the needle,” balancing democracy with aristocracy, libertarianism with authoritarianism, and on and on. What makes a republic so difficult in praxis is the achievement of this balance. Without it, a republic will be led astray in either of these three directions.
Given what has been observed of the American republic, as well as the merits and demerits of this mode of government in general, it is imperative that we commit ourselves to an intellectually honest discussion about the viability of republics, and whether or not they are the best conduits for human flourishing.