The Virtues and Vices of a Faltering Republic: On Michael Tomasky’s “If We Can Keep It”

By Edward J. WattsJuly 31, 2020

The Virtues and Vices of a Faltering Republic: On Michael Tomasky’s “If We Can Keep It”

If We Can Keep It by Michael Tomasky

THE PAST THREE and a half years have forced many Americans to consider the significant differences between a democracy and a republic. In a democracy, all eligible citizens cast votes that count equally. Most decisions are made by a simple majority of voters, and if that majority opinion changes, the decision can quickly be unmade. This is the system most famously run by the Athenians in the Classical period — and that Athenian experience prompted men as diverse as Plato and James Madison to fear giving too much power to mobs of citizens. They were, Madison wrote, prone to “disturbing the public tranquility” by inciting “too strongly the public passions.”

The Founding Fathers instead embraced a different ancient political model. They looked not to democratic Athens but to republican Rome, the ancient world’s most successful representative democracy. The citizens of a republic elect representatives to make laws and implement policies. When this system works as intended, it dilutes the public passions that Madison feared might disrupt the peaceful operations of a state. Republican Rome worked very well indeed. Not only did Rome’s republic endure for nearly 500 years, but this system enabled Rome to avoid political violence for nearly three full centuries. Perhaps equally importantly for early American citizens, Rome remained a republic even while it expanded to govern most of the Mediterranean basin. Republican Rome offered a good political model for the territorial expansive — and expanding — young American state.

Large republics like Rome or the United States do not weigh the voices of all of their citizens equally. The voices of some citizens always matter more. In Rome, wealthy citizens and citizens allotted to certain voting groups had more power than their poorer or less well-positioned compatriots. In the United States, individual citizens of rural Wyoming have much louder electoral voices than their urban Californian counterparts. And women and nonwhites have, for large parts of American history, not been given voices at all. Our republican system has been rigged from the beginning. Quite deliberately so. Inequality is not a bug in our republic. It was seen by our Founders as a feature.

Strong republics compensate for this inequality by encouraging representatives to build diverse coalitions of supporters before they enact new laws. This type of consensus-based politics ensures that the voices of underrepresented citizens still influence the shape of policies. Republics also often make decisions slowly so that multiple perspectives can be heard and compromises reached before a final vote is taken. If a broad group of citizens support policies when they are created, they are more likely to sustain and improve upon an individual policy, law, or program. If inequality is the native vice of a republic, deliberative political compromise is the offsetting virtue.

Michael Tomasky’s If We Can Keep It details the long competition between the virtues and vices inherent in the American republic. It begins with the founding of our republic and traces, in considerable detail, how political inequalities have plagued America since the 1780s. But Tomasky also shows how the virtues of consensus and compromise operated at moments in our political history to make society function better and respond more effectively to the needs of American citizens. The result of all of this is a masterful biography of an American polity that now faces a potentially terminal ailment.

The story unfolds across seven efficient chapters that reconstruct political and social conditions across four ages of American history. The first age, the Age of Creation, saw the institutions of American representative democracy take shape in the seven decades between the Constitutional Convention and the Civil War. With some notable (and temporary) exceptions, the Age of Creation was a time of conflict in which the first political parties took shape and the stain of slavery warped political culture. But it was also an age of repeated compromise as the first three generations of Americans decided what Congress would look like, which citizens could vote, and what sorts of congressional delegations states could send.

The Age of Creation also birthed a particularly American way of thinking about political parties. As the country expanded to the west and south, the existing political parties followed. This created ideologically diverse (and sometimes utterly incoherent) national parties that represented shifting collections of very different regional interests and fostered cross-party collaboration on national policies. It also sustained the American culture of political compromise.

Until it didn’t. The Civil War destroyed a great deal of the political infrastructure built around compromises governing slavery, states’ rights, and citizen representation. The trauma of the war and the strong association the Republican Party had with its prosecution did, however, help preserve some of the regional diversity and ideological heterogeneity of American political parties. Tomasky’s next age, the Age of Power, saw a modern, industrial nation grow up in the war’s aftermath. It still had two political parties that made little ideological or geographic sense. There was a Democratic Party made up of racist, primarily rural Southerners and urban immigrants living in the booming industrial capitals of the north. The Republican Party bound everyone from western mine operators to New England brahmins. The Republican dominance over the federal government between Reconstruction and the Great Depression meant that fights between Republicans who favored lightly regulated capitalism and reformers like Teddy Roosevelt who fought against monopolistic businesses did more to shape national priorities than conflicts between Republicans and Democrats.

The combined shocks of the Great Depression and World War II ended the Age of Power. What emerged was Tomasky’s Age of Consensus, a period from 1933 until 1980 when civic, business, and political leaders prized political compromise over conflict. Democrats and Republicans remained two ideologically and regionally diverse political parties for most of this period. This encouraged cross-party compromises on issues ranging from civil rights to environmental legislation. It also meant that many of the signature legislative achievements of this age passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly, with support from both parties and much of the American civic and business establishment.

The culture of consensus and compromise broke down as the generation of politicians who lived through the Depression and fought in World War II left office in the 1980s and early 1990s. The United States then entered the current Age of Fracture when the historic ideological diversity of American political parties ended and the culture of compromise died. The Age of Fracture saw the rise of talk radio and Fox News, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, and safe congressional districts and scientific gerrymandering. It was also the moment when consumerism replaced citizenship as the driving force behind American public life.

Tomasky identifies a series of moments that brought us to this point. The 1987 demise of the Fairness Doctrine opened up radio and television airways to ideologically unbalanced and unapologetically partisan programming. The Clinton impeachment and the adjudication of the 2000 presidential election by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court created the idea of Red America and Blue America. The political realignment that saw the South shift from conservative Democratic control to Republican domination also destroyed the intraparty regional and ideological diversity that had once buffered passions and necessitated bipartisan compromises. And the growth of a consumer and financial culture that celebrates corporate raiders like Carl Icahn and encourages people to think of their own wants rather than the common good makes many Americans uninterested in the immense damage this political dysfunction does.

If We Can Keep It ends with a 14-point plan to create a better American future. Half of Tomasky’s proposals offer political fixes like eliminating the filibuster, ending gerrymandering, and reviving moderate Republicanism. Most of these are, he admits, “basically unimaginable” under current conditions. This is why the second seven fixes matter. They are intended to change the social conditions that sustain our political dysfunction. Tomasky proposes an expanded civics curriculum in schools that would instruct American students and workers about the structure of their republic and its history. He suggests student exchanges and national service initiatives that can familiarize people with different regions of the country. And he hopes that corporate leaders will affirm their commitment to social responsibility.

Tomasky ends by emphasizing what is at stake if we fail. Our republic, in Tomasky’s telling, is a political organism. It “must be kept alive. Ours is dying.” This metaphor may seem overly dramatic, but this doesn’t mean it is misguided. Political systems do die. The Roman Republic, on which our founders modeled our own system of government, died after the great republican virtues of compromise and consensus failed to control Roman political life in the first century BC. Rome then fell into a long period of civil war before the first Roman emperor Augustus replaced the Roman Republic with an autocratic regime. Emperors would continue to rule the Roman state for the next 1,500 years.

Romans also saw their state as a mortal polity that could sicken and, eventually, die. This was true of the Roman Republic, but it was also true of the empire. In the 11th century AD, the Byzantine Roman philosopher and historian Michael Psellos spoke about his early life as an age when the empire was like “a healthy animal, with a thoroughly strong constitution.” It was “not altered in a moment at the first sign of illness” but, “by slow degrees, the malady grew, and reaching a crisis that threw the patient into utter confusion and complete disorder.” By the time Psellos was an old man in the 1070s, the beast had nearly expired as the political system under which he lived collapsed into chaos.

Tomasky is aware of the dynamic Psellos describes. “Politics,” he writes, “is usually a lagging indicator of social change.” Tomasky is surely right to point to changes in the broadcast, economic, and political environments of the late 1980s and early 1990s as moments when the pathogens that caused our current political ailments first invaded the American body politic. Things like the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in media and Newt Gingrich’s C-SPAN performances seemed to be relatively innocuous features of a vibrant representative democracy when they happened in the 1980s. But, in retrospect, we can see how these steps led us to where we are now.

At the same time, Tomasky’s sensitivity to these larger social forces sometimes prevents him from fully recognizing the role individuals played in shaping conditions across his four ages of American history. If George Washington had a bigger ego, the Age of Creation might have led to a military dictatorship rather than a representative democracy. If Theodore Roosevelt were less bull-headed, the trust-busting of the early 1900s may not have happened. If Robert Taft’s nascent Southern Strategy had enabled him to win the Republican presidential nomination over Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the Age of Consensus might never have gotten its name. And if Gerald Ford had won reelection in 1976, the Age of Fracture might not have dawned.

Systems matter, but so do individuals. When Psellos diagnosed political ailments in the 11th-century Roman Empire, he did not for a moment question where they came from or how they could be cured. He believed that political problems grew out of individual failures and they would be repaired by a better, more competent individual. This is natural for Psellos. He lived in an imperial system topped by an autocrat.

This is not a world that those of us born in the postwar West have really experienced. All of us have been taught to believe in robust political systems that channel the efforts of individuals, control the impact they have on a society, and buffer the full effects of the changes they initiate. For nearly 75 years we have lived in that world. And the solutions that Tomasky proposes to our current crisis come out of that world of robust systems. But the last four years have revealed the frailty of these political systems. Their ability to resist the initiatives of individuals who do not respect them is not what we once imagined it to be.

The path forward depends as much on the willingness of our current president to allow us to keep our republic as it does on any inherent resilience in the American republic and its people. The survival of our republic is not entirely out of our hands, but the most frightening conclusion of Tomasky’s work is its survival is not entirely in our hands either. When Tomasky wrote in 2018, he worried that “it could become law that if a president does it, it isn’t illegal.” This may have seemed like an alarmist overreaction in 2018, but the behavior of Republicans during the Trump impeachment trial shows that our current situation today is, if anything, even more dire than what Tomasky imagined to be a worst case.

Americans have now reached a moment where we must question whether our president will respect the checks on his power and whether he will listen to the voices of those he represents. There is no longer any guarantee that he cares to listen. Tomasky has shown that our republic may now lack the vigor to compel him to do so.


Edward Watts hold a Chair in Byzantine History at UC San Diego. He writes about political and religious change in the Roman Republic, Roman Empire, and Byzantine Empire. His work has been featured in The Economist, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, Smithsonian, and NPR.

LARB Contributor

Edward J. Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. The author and editor of several prize-winning books, including The Final Pagan Generation (2015), he lives in Carlsbad, California.


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