Declining middle class could send America the way of Rome

This piece originally appeared April 10, 2014:

My conservative credentials used to be above reproach. When I was a senior cadet at The Citadel, I forced younger cadets to salute a picture of Ronald Reagan. When I was a law student at UNC, I was a member of the Federalist Society. I wrote on assigned topics for the Pope Center. I voted for George W. Bush.

But then I saw something that forced me to re-evaluate everything: The American middle class is collapsing.

But that’s not all I see. The kicker is that something like this has happened before, inaugurating one of the most tragic chapters in history: the dissolution of the Roman republic. Of all the lessons taught by the Romans, those in their mistakes are perhaps the most valuable.

When I first began studying Roman history, I really didn’t like the Gracchi brothers. I pictured them as nothing more than a couple of rabble-rousers. After all, their efforts to rehabilitate the Roman yeomanry were connected with a scheme of redistribution and have explicitly been called “socialistic.” Yet after much contemplation, I think it is they – not Brutus – who were the noblest Romans of all. How could that be?

The answer is because I finally realized that the Gracchi did a higher thing than Brutus, who destroyed one repugnant form of a republic. The Gracchi tried to rehabilitate the many who comprise the substance of a republic. They tried to rehabilitate the Roman middle class. For this they were murdered. The Gracchi failed, and the proletariat swelled.

My change of heart has not reversed my party loyalty. It rather has freed me from party loyalty altogether, for the long view of history places the short-sightedness of party politics in sharp relief.

My study of history has taught me that power tends to follow wealth and that government is a time-lag reflection of prevailing socioeconomic conditions. A society in which wealth is concentrated in few hands rests at oligarchy. A society in which a middle class predominates demands democracy. The configuration of the social classes asserts a gravitational pull around which political society continually orbits and from which it never escapes. Not even the Roman republic, which stood for almost 500 years, could survive the demographic upheaval brought on by a swelling proletariat and the extreme concentration of wealth. Above all, I have learned that moderate customs and laws depend upon moderate wealth and power.

Ancient society was very different from modern society. The fundamental social problems facing the Gracchi were nevertheless similar to those we face today. Then as now: The fortunes of the rich were hurling into the stratosphere while the middle classes were crashing into the ground. Ever greater numbers of people were becoming dependent on subsidies. Traditional laws and customs came to be seen more as obstructions than as institutions of justice. Popular leaders grew ever more brazen. Popular government was warped into an instrument of patronage. The spirit of moderation was being frayed.

The Roman republic was not undone by any defects in its political institutions, but by the conflicts unleashed by the desolation of its middle class. The clearest description of the circumstances surrounding the Gracchi I have found was made by the classicist Frank Frost Abbott in his 1901 work “A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions”:

“The republic had been at the outset, and for several centuries afterward, a commonwealth of free landowners. This great middle class was now swept out of existence, and with it went the foundation on which the state rested. The object of the movement connected with the name Tiberius Gracchus was to build this class up again.”

How do the mistakes of the Romans translate into the challenges of America today? I think I can sum it up pretty nicely with this: It is 2014 A.D. going on 133 B.C.

If there is anyone who would succeed the Gracchi, report for duty now.

Timothy R. Ferguson of Chapel Hill is the founder of The Institute for Anacyclosis.