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Rome Replayed?

After my brief hiatus over the summer, I’m back in school for my junior year! Now that I’m back, I’ll be returning to my routine of one article a month. Thanks for keeping up with Libertea!

I spent a small part of my summer in Rome— a trip I had been looking forward to the whole year, as a kind of capstone of my 3 years of studying Latin. My time in the Eternal City (that’s what Rome is called!) was enough to leave a lasting impact in my mind, as well as to draw some interesting parallels between the Roman Empire and the USA. The superficial similarities are easy to grasp: both affluent societies, politically powerful, militarily supreme (at least in their prime), and projecting influence and power far beyond their own borders. Rome also began as a republic ruled by a constitution which included assemblies, the senate, and magistrates that provided checks and balances against each other. Romans also theorized, conceived, and built on a grand scale: the Pantheon and Colosseum are downright awe inspiring, and major landmarks from other empires and eras draw inspiration from Roman architecture.

So, why did Rome ultimately decline and fall? How did the most expansive, long-lasting, and impressive empires cease to exist? After a bit of research, I found that one of the major causes of Rome’s weakening influence and eventual decline could serve as a warning for us. Rome ceased acting as a republic of laws, and instead became an autocratic empire where violence was legitimized and power was moved from institutions to only a chosen few in power.

That led me to ask: If mighty Rome can fall, should we as Americans be worried? Should we learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of Rome, its rulers, and their people?

Thankfully, America is still a country of laws with many human rights and civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. These include the right to practice one’s religion, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a trial by an impartial jury. These rights are now the basis of many laws that have been created and protected by various institutions of the US government.

As John Adams said, “we are a nation of laws, not of men. There is a danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with the power to endanger public liberty.” Rome started out as a nation of laws, but as time progressed, they endangered public liberty by entrusting too much power to those that already had it instead of relying on the steadfast laws they had already created.

Titus Livius, a Roman historian, echoed this sentiment, “Rome has grown since its humble beginnings that it is now overwhelmed by its own greatness”. We could say that about America too— but the question lies in how we choose to use that power, and how we choose to share it. Since the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President, there has been a concerted attempt to change laws, marginalize institutions, and to challenge the system of checks and balances in the US federal government. He won the election simply by capitalizing on old cracks in our society: racism, sexism, and xenophobia – and now his administration seems to be intent to convert these sentiments into public policy.

While examples abound, let’s cover three examples from the recent news.

1) Travel Ban. With sweeping executive orders, Trump has made several attempts to prevent people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. It started with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. Challenged in court and deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against a religious group, Trump has tried again. The most recent version doesn’t have Iraq on the list, but has North Korea and Venezuela.

2) “Dreamers”. The administration has ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). With the pretense of stabilizing the (already stable) economy, the President ended protection for “Dreamers” that had entered the country as children, and had been given the ability to go to school, get drivers licenses, buy property, and start businesses. In return for registering with the federal government, the Dreamers had assurance that their information will not be used against them. With the stroke of a pen, he has denied hundreds of thousands of people the ability to learn, earn, and move freely in the US.

3) Obamacare. Not surprisingly, Trump made the repeal of his predecessor’s crowning achievement a top priority. Obamacare now provides access to healthcare to over 20 million Americans that previously were uninsured. With the help of congressional Republicans, he has tried twice to repeal it – both times failing miserably. However, not to be deterred, he is using his power over the executive departments responsible for implementing Obamacare to ensure failure by cutting a vast majority of the funding and resources that support this program. The advertising budget has been slashed to a tenth of its budget, the enrollment period has been cut by half, and the budget for staff that help people sign up for this service has also been cut by half.

Given these attacks on civil liberties and the legal protections we enjoy, how should we think about the direction America is heading? Will these attacks transform into new authoritarian laws, or will we be protected by the Constitution? Is this just, in reality, a slight twist in the road? Will continue to be (or return back) on track? Are these events the harbinger of even more widening cracks in our society that signal that America is declining the same way Rome did?

As disheartening as that may sound, I believe there is always something we can do. Whether we choose to see it or not, the people in a government do greatly affect the course of its governance.

Everyone, especially the young people, can truly influence the direction America goes from here. Let’s get active and make our voices heard! And though I consider myself a progressive, the words of Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, ring true here: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

So don’t do nothing. If we all do a little something, we can help America from becoming the new Rome.

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