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The real divide: between plebeian and patrician visions of democracy

The collapse of the Roman Republic offers salutary lessons for those who wish to strengthen democracy. We should heed the lessons of history.

Thibault Muzergues
22 January 2017
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Cicero denounces Catiline, who sought to overthrow the Roman Republic, in a fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1889. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cicero denounces Catiline, who sought to overthrow the Roman Republic, in a fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1889. (Wikimedia Commons)Classical history has often served as a touchstone for modern Western governments, both in times of crisis and in periods of growth. It has become a cliché to suggest that recent crises recall the last days of the Roman Empire, but a more plausible analogy would be to the Roman Republic, when the divide between ordinary folk (plebeians) and the elite (patricians) became an enduring source of political conflict.

Of course, the tremendous advances in the freedoms and opportunities available to ordinary people demands the exercise of caution in comparing contemporary divisions with the classical world. Nevertheless, there is a certain element of resonance in contemporary European politics and the classical world.

As Jan Surotchak and I have argued in OpenDemocracy previously, the 20th century European order dominated by Christian democrats and social democrats is crumbling, and politics is increasingly dominated by a showdown between establishment and anti-establishment forces. While there’s a consensus over the fact of a divide, the characteristics of the actors who have rejected the status quo are not. 

Some authors and journals have tried to answer this latter question, most notably The Economist, which sees today’s emerging political divide as essentially a contest between open and closed models of society, with forces of nationalism and isolationism finding a receptive audience with those who feel left behind by globalization and open borders.technological changes have fed the growing perception of an intractable social divide

While this theory holds true for countries that have experienced a growing populist right-wing, it does not account for the struggle between establishment and anti-establishment actors on the left of the political spectrum, a phenomenon that has emerged spectacularly in southern Europe, and in some parts of northern Europe (Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom), as well as in the United States with Bernie Sanders. 

The momentous sociological changes underway since the end of the Cold War have been fueled partly by technological progress, which has facilitated the formation and consolidation of identity groups, through access to – and the ability to filter content for –likeminded people. This phenomenon has connected many, but has also fed the growing perception of an intractable divide between a creative class that has fully integrated in the globalized world and a service class who are not reaping the same benefits as the elites.

As social tensions rigidify, cultural barriers grow between people who can be neighbors or, indeed, members of the same family but differ substantially in the way they see the world. On one side, the urbane, postmodern and “creative” class will embrace globalization and feel comfortable in a multicultural, environment. On the other hand, the more national, modern, “service”-oriented citizenry will reject aspects of globalization and yearn for an idealised past of cultural and economic security.politicians threatened by the consequences of referenda have, in some cases, begun to question the value of democratic consultation

This divide poses serious questions about the appropriate form and practice of democratic governments. Should direct democracy, as with the UK’s referendum on EU membership, become a more consistent feature in Western democracy? Despite occupying opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both Viktor Orban and Alexis Tsipras have used direct democracy as part of their political agenda, to counter the will of EU “elites” who allegedly do not listen to the people. In so doing, they arguably risk undermining faith in their own systems – they are, after all, the products of representative democracies. On the other hand, establishment politicians threatened by the consequences of referenda have, in some cases, begun to question the value of democratic consultation, and have become fearful and contemptuous of the populations who have seemingly rejected them. 

History shows us that when these conflicts fester they can undermine the very fabric of the state. The Roman Republic could only mitigate its deep social divisions when it faced a mighty external enemy, as in the case of the Punic Wars – once Carthage was vanquished and Greece put under the Republic’s control, Rome descended into a series of civil wars that ultimately destroyed the Republic. let us incorporate a circumspect regard for the lessons of history, and focus on strengthening our institutions to respond to social polarisation in a democratic manner

As Western politicians confront the conundrum posed by anti-establishment movements on the right and left, they must learn the lessons of history if they are to preserve the stability and freedoms that have been central to building successful post-war societies. It will be crucial to continue building a strong transatlantic community that can withstand challenges including violent extremism, manipulation by external actors like Russia, and managing our own political realignments in Europe, as a guarantee against foreign meddling. This is one of the reasons why it is important that NGOs like the International Republican Institute continue their work with transatlantic partners to strengthen democratic institutions, which allow us to transform the negative energies created by our social divisions into a positive drive for change and reform of our political system.

Of course one cannot draw a straight comparison between Rome and the West, and many common practices of that era (including slavery, gladiatorial games and even in some cases institutionalised infanticide) are fortunately a thing of the past. Yet there are many lessons that we can draw from Rome’s almost 500 years of republican government, ranging from the progressive enfranchisement of the plebeians to the capacity of political actors to keep the institutions working even in times of crisis. Their mistakes are just as instructive – from the dangers of seeking quick fixes to complex social problems, to weakening the balance of powers at a time of crisis, which leads to dictatorship and ultimately the replacement of a Republic with an Empire. As Europe's own Res Publica faces a series of serious challenges, let us incorporate a circumspect regard for the lessons of history, and focus on strengthening our institutions to respond to social polarisation in a democratic manner.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

 

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