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America is a constitutional republic built on the principles of liberal democracy

The American political system is worth saving


A re-creation of the architecture of ancient Athens by Sir James Pennathorne.


By Joshua Peters

It is of great importance that we get clear on the type of government we seek to preserve. Too often we hear claims to save “democracy” or pledges to the “republic” as competing narratives, but it seems to me it is not at all clear to these individuals what they are saving or pledging allegiance to.

Let’s make it clear at the outset that the United States is a constitutional republic built on the principles of liberal democracy. But what do the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ mean, and how are they relevant to the United States’ form of government? What is their historical context, and how did we come to consider ourselves a constitutional republic with democratic institutions? I will provide a brief history of the Greek and Roman governmental systems from which democracy and republicanism emerged, respectively. From there, I will delve into what led to their fall and subsequent reemergence during the 17th century. Next, I will discuss the dynamism that contributed to their adoption by a newly formed nation called the United States of America. Finally, I will explain the importance of our constitutional republic and liberal democratic institutions and why they are worth saving.

Our constitutional republic, anchored in liberal democratic institutions, is worth fighting for. Rather than staunchly favoring one aspect over another, Americans should appreciate the thoughtful and meticulous design that underpins it, even if some of the elements found in its implementation were left wanting. However, it is not a dogmatic governmental system and possesses within its structure the capacity for change.

Around 507 BCE, an Athenian statesman named Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia (δημοκρατία). This innovative concept for a political system aimed to establish rule by the people. We know this system as democracy, derived from the Greek words ‘demos’ (δῆμος), meaning “the people,” and ‘kratos’ (κράτος), meaning “rule” or “power.”

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Cleisthenes aimed to create a political structure in which Athenians enjoyed equality before the law, a concept known as ‘isonomia’ (ἰσονομία) in Greek. Cleisthenes’ demokratia sought to abolish political distinctions between Athenian aristocrats and everyday citizens.

The Athenians are often considered the first people to believe in the rule of law for all their citizens. Before the rise of Alexander the Great, many Greek people, including Athenians, did not hold the belief that their political leaders had a divine right to rule, as was common in other societies like Egypt or Persia. Hence, they had a normative view of what it meant for something to be a law. The Greek word for ‘law’ was nomos (νόμος), which is also associated with words like ‘usage’ or ‘custom.’ This concept is encapsulated in Aristotle’s view that “man is a political animal” and “the city-state is a perfectly natural form of association.”

The democratic structure comprised three institutions. The ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), or assembly, was an elected, sovereign governing body open to all members of the demos. It met multiple times a year to discuss legislative matters, assess public officials, determine foreign policy, make decisions regarding war, and so forth. All decisions were made based on a majority vote. The next institution was the boule (βουλή), a council of 500 citizens. The boule managed the daily affairs of Athens. The 500 citizens were chosen by lot and served for one year. The last institution was the dikasteria (δικαστής). The dikasteria were popular courts where citizens argued cases before 500 randomly selected jurors. Without a formal police force, Athenian citizens themselves initiated and participated in court cases, advocating for both prosecution and defense, and rendering verdicts and sentences through majority rule. Athenian citizens frequently used the dikasteria to punish or embarrass their political enemies. The trial of Socrates was conducted by the dikasteria.

However, around the same time Cleisthenes was reforming Athens to be democratic, the city-state of Rome was also transforming its political system. The Roman monarchy system came to an end in 509 BCE, marking the conclusion of Etruscan rule over Rome. With the fall of the last king of Rome, a new political order emerged. The Roman senate created two consuls to assume the duties of the king and establish a system of checks and balances. The term of the consuls would last only a year. The first two consuls were two Roman patricians named Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. The rise of the consulship and the senate as the arbiters of public affairs marked a shift in Roman politics from a monarchy to a republic.

The republic (res publica), which derives from the Latin phrase “property of the public,” delineated itself as a governing system primarily concerned with law, order, and duty. Unlike Athenian democracy, it was not founded on the principle of equality. Roman society, in contrast, was hierarchical. Rome was organized into classes, and political power was concentrated in the hands of patrician families.

The Romans had a much more practical, duty-bound view of what it meant to be an aristocrat, unlike their Greek counterparts, influencing the ethos of the republic. While the Greek aristocracy often found interest in a pleasurable life, Roman aristocrats were tied to political duty. To be a Roman aristocrat meant having a duty to the gods and the republic. This is why many of them had to undergo military training, along with studying the laws, as part of their education. It prepared them at all times to defend the state.

The aristocratic culture was not the only thing different between the Greeks and the Romans. Laws under the Roman republic would lose some of their normativity and adopt a more spiritual reverence. The Laws of the Twelve Tables formed the legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Roman statesman Cicero referred to the Board of Ten that drafted the first Laws of the Ten Tables as having “very great authority, not subject to appeal.” Additionally, the Laws of the Twelve Tables were distinct from what the Romans called civil law (jus civile). This suggests that the Laws of the Twelve Tables formed something akin to constitutional law.

In addition to great reverence for the foundational laws passed down from their predecessors, Romans held great reverence for tradition. This veneration for customs and ancestral practices was deeply ingrained in Roman society, shaping their cultural identity and influencing various aspects of their governance as a republic. Romans believed that adherence to tradition was not merely a nostalgic sentiment but a pragmatic and stabilizing force essential for the well-being of the state. This commitment to tradition reflected a fundamental aspect of Roman republicanism, where the stability and continuity of the republic were maintained through the preservation of time-honored values and institutions. In the Roman republican framework, the interplay between civic duty, law, and tradition underscored a collective responsibility to uphold the ideals of the state, fostering a sense of shared governance and duty among the Romans.

One should walk away from the aforementioned with a sense of what democracy and republicanism meant to Athenians and Romans, respectively, and how that understanding remains with us to this very day. From Athenian democracy, we retain the aspiration for government by the people under the principle of equality. Additionally, we gain a blueprint for how a democratic governmental system can function, involving majority rule voting, the election of everyday citizens, and the political division of labor between institutions.

From Roman republicanism, we retain a commitment to law and order as outlined by our legal code and the distinction between what we now call Congress (the Roman senate) and the Executive (the Roman consulship). We also maintain the Roman republic’s sensitivity to jurisprudence and legal precedence. While we may not necessarily focus on cultural traditions like the Romans, we seek jurisprudence by maintaining legal precedence unless otherwise contradicted by a more robust interpretation of the law.

In short, the United States has preserved the structure and framework of a republic and the principles and institutions of a democracy.

The question may be raised: “What happened to these governing systems?” I alluded to the fact that Alexander the Great moved the Greeks further away from democracy, but to be fair, it was already in decline as a consequence of Athens losing the Peloponnesian War to Sparta in 404 BCE. We were all raised with the history of the great Roman Empire, often through the lens of the Roman emperors—and the Roman emperors that often come to mind for most people are the worst of the lot, such as Nero, Caligula, and Commodus, who were anti-republican. So, what happened to Athenian democracy and the Roman republic?

The unfortunate social reality is that Athenian democracy and the Roman republic internally collapsed. Despite the ekklesia being an institution that advocated for isonomia (equality before the law), it did not equally promote parrhesia (παρρησία) for all. The Greek word ‘parrhesia’ could translate as “freedom of speech” or “license of speech.” Freedom of speech was reserved for the privileged members of Athenian society who had the means to be educated by rhetoricians, enabling them to become persuasive rhetors (ῥητρω) at the assembly. This practice undermined the spirit of democracy, reducing political equality to a mere name. Additionally, wealthy Athenians found a way to exert a majority or influential voice on the boule (the council of 500 citizens) to protect their interests, despite the council’s use of a lottery system.

The only institution that was truly democratic was the dikasteria. However, influential Athenians like the philosopher Plato demonstrated in his dialogue “Apology” that this was a flawed institution. A prosecutor named Lycon convinced the dikasteria to condemn Socrates to death on charges of dishonoring the gods and “corrupting” the youth of Athens. Plato rightfully saw this as mob rule led by corrupt politicians who were educated in rhetoric and adept at manipulating democratic institutions to further their political careers.

What started out as a noble endeavor to advance political equality ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. The institutions were corrupted to advance the interest of a handful of politically involved aristocrats and not the interest of the people who, unfortunately, voted against their own interest, which resulted in democracy falling into an autocracy. Cicero had this to say about Athenian democracy.

That is always a risk, for equality before the law, which free people so cherish, cannot be maintained indefinitely; for the people themselves, even when free from all restraint, give many special privileges to many persons…. So-called equality is most inequitable; for when the same respect is accorded to the highest and the lowest, equity is most unequal. Hence, the aristocrats have taken over the middle ground between the inadequate autocrat and the reckless mob.

Cicero, despite his insightful words, often portrayed Rome as having it all figured out. However, similar to the collapse of Athenian democracy, the Roman republic gave way due to hubris and its dogmatic commitment to tradition.

By 146 BCE, the Roman republic had emerged as the predominant force in the Mediterranean, solidifying its dominance through the annexation of Carthage and Greece. Despite these conquests, the success of the Roman senate against external threats led to a neglect of political reforms aimed at enhancing the well-being of all Roman citizens, particularly the plebeians—a lower class within the Roman hierarchy.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Third Punic War. As tribunes of the plebs, they championed land reform and populist legislation in Rome, seeking to improve the plight of the Roman plebeians. Their most notable reform aimed at redistributing land from the aristocracy to Rome’s urban poor and veterans. While some of their arguments were reasonable, Tiberius Gracchus’s disdain for the Senate, his overt populism, and political tactics marked a shift in the nature of Roman politics, escalating tensions and introducing a more ruthless era.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Tiberius employed his tribunician powers to bring the Roman government to a standstill. His subsequent illegal candidacy for re-election sparked hostility, culminating in his tragic death in 133 BCE at the hands of enraged senators.

This event marked the initiation of political turmoil, characterized by the erosion of procedural norms and the rise of legal manipulation and outright violence. Tiberius’ younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, succeeded him and continued the push for social reform. Gaius introduced laws targeting those involved in Tiberius’ death, increasing state-funded military equipment, subsidizing grains for the poor, and imposing severe penalties for corrupt judges.

Gaius’s confrontational approach, coupled with political maneuvering by opponents, led to a loss of popular support by 121 BCE. The senate’s extreme response, passing the senatus consultum ultimum, granted the power to declare individuals an enemy of the state without trial. Following a riot on the Capitoline Hill, Gaius Gracchus took his own life in 121 BCE.

The Gracchi brothers, often regarded as early socialists, played a pivotal role in the decline of the Roman republic. Their efforts to address social issues, the patricians’ refusal to break from the traditional view of patrician social dominance to adopt reforms to help the plebeians, and the subsequent internal conflicts among political leaders contributed to a weakening of faith in the republic, setting the stage for the emergence of a dictator.

The Roman senate had a legal provision to elect a dictator (dictator rei gerundae causa) to take charge of Roman society and exercise absolute authority as a means to restore law and order. The senate believed that having a temporary dictator would allow for the efficient and effective restoration of law and order in emergency situations, avoiding the bureaucratic and political complexities of the republic.

Around 458 BCE, a statesman named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus became the first elected dictator of Rome, winning the Battle of Mount Algidus. A group of senators informed Cincinnatus of his appointment as dictator while he was plowing his farm. Upon winning the battle, Cincinnatus voluntarily disbanded his army and stepped down as dictator. As the story goes, he returned to his farm. For this, Cincinnatus became a legendary Roman figure, a paragon of virtue for which all young aristocrats were encouraged to model their character. This story is reminiscent of George Washington’s experience upon winning the American Revolution.

Despite this enduring first impression of a dictator, it was not a legal provision that would stand the test of time. There were two leading factors as to why the republic collapsed under the hands of a dictator: legal changes that ensured soldiers’ loyalty to generals rather than the republic, and the sociopolitical culture tying military success with political status. Preparing to lead an army against the invading Kingdom of Pontus (modern-day Anatolia), a Roman general and statesman named Lucius Cornelius Sulla was told not to engage by former consul and successful commander Gaius Marius, who planned to lead an army against the invaders himself. Sulla, unwilling to accept this, shocked the Roman republic to its core by gathering his forces and marching into the city of Rome to depose Marius. He succeeded, and Marius was exiled to Africa. Sulla went on to achieve a glorious victory in Anatolia and returned to Rome to defeat his political rivals in a brief civil war. Upon securing his position against his political rivals, he assumed a new title, one unprecedented in Roman history. In 83 BCE, Sulla became dictator perpetuo or dictator for life.

While Sulla eventually retired his dictatorship, the damage to the republic had been done. Because of Sulla and Marius, a new precedent for a new form of Roman government had been set, and the man who would bring about the end of the Roman republic is perhaps the most well-known Roman in history: Gaius Julius Caesar.

Athenian democracy endured for roughly a century, while the Roman republic boasted a remarkable lifespan of about 482 years. These governance structures faced little serious consideration until the 17th century, when the ideas of liberalism championed by English philosopher John Locke and the principles of federalism articulated by French political theorist Montesquieu emerged. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that these theories found practical application with the drafting of the United States Constitution, marking a pivotal moment in the founding of the United States of America as a constitutional republic in 1788.

The Founding Fathers, hailing from the era of Enlightenment, were deeply shaped by its transformative ideals. Guided by principles such as reason, individual rights, and the pursuit of happiness, they embraced the intellectual legacy of that age. Among the profound influences on these architects of the nation, John Locke’s concepts of natural rights and the right to revolution resonate prominently. This resonance is notably discernible in foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence, where Locke’s philosophical underpinnings find expression in the articulation of essential rights and the justifications for challenging oppressive governance.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This renowned passage from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence directly echoes the principles laid out in Locke’s political philosophy, which serves as the bedrock of liberalism. Notably, the assertion that “all men are created equal” reflects a reemergence of the democratic ethos of equality before the law, challenging the prevailing aristocratic structures inherent in governments worldwide.

However, mindful of historical lessons and Alexis de Tocqueville’s caution against the “tyranny of the majority,” the Framers looked to Cicero for inspiration.

A state should possess an element of regal supremacy; something else should be assigned and allotted to the authority of aristocrats; and certain affairs should be reserved for the judgement and desires of the masses. Such a constitution has, in the first place, a widespread element of equality which free men cannot long do without. Secondly, it has stability; for although those three original forms [monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy] easily degenerate into their corrupt versions (producing a despot instead of a king, an oligarchy instead of an aristocracy, and a disorganized rabble instead of a democracy), and although those simple forms often change into others, such things rarely happen in a political structure which represents a combination and a judicious mixture—unless, that is, the politicians are deeply corrupt. 

They envisioned a balanced government incorporating elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, drawing further insights from Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws.” Embracing the concept of the separation of powers and the significance of checks and balances, they crafted a republic that housed democratic institutions. This republic captured the degree of honor associated with a monarchy, the moderation and order reminiscent of a Roman interpretation of aristocracy, and the virtue of a democracy, prioritizing individual liberty and political equality above all else.

This republic found additional strength through its integration with English common law and constitutionalism. The English political tradition, exemplified by pivotal documents like the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, played a critical role in shaping James Madison’s draft of the American Constitution. Rooted in a profound understanding of individual liberties and the necessity for limited government, this amalgamation formed the robust foundation of the American political system.

Our political system is the result of over 2,500 years of political experiments and has evolved into a remarkable experiment itself. It stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of human freedom and equality, fortified by a judicious framework of law and order. This grand amalgamation constitutes the most profound political undertaking in the chronicles of global history. Distinct from rigid adherence to tradition seen in other systems, particularly Roman dogmatism, the American political structure is characterized by its adaptability to the changing tides of time.

Unlike the inflexibility of certain historical precedents, the dynamism of the American Constitution allows for evolution and progress. A stellar illustration of this capacity for growth lies in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. These constitutional amendments not only signify a cultural and political commitment to the virtuous principles of equality but also underscore the system’s ability to adapt with societal progress.

At its essence, our political architecture is not a static relic; rather, it is an ever-evolving entity that resonates with the pulse of contemporary values and aspirations. Through such adaptability, it remains a beacon of democracy, illustrating that the ideals of individual liberty, social equality, and human dignity can thrive and flourish across centuries. Hence, the Forward Party remains unwavering in its commitment to our constitutional republic and liberal democratic institutions, advocating that we all do the same, as the strength of a democracy is inherently tied to the quality of its participants.

In our pursuit, we aim to breathe new life into the American mindset, urging a departure from the dogmatic constraints of a two-party system. The Forward Party envisions a reinvigorated democracy, where innovation and the inclusion of a plurality of political parties can help reshape the political landscape to ensure that individual liberty, social equality, and human dignity are not merely paid lip service but are authentically woven into the fabric of our society for generations to come.

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