I’ve heard a lot of words and historical analogies applied to the Capitol riots. Was it a coup, an insurrection, a putsch? Was it like Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923? Or was it much more American, an exercise in White supremacy, more like a lynch mob, perhaps? M. Davout asks us to think more deeply about the past, as the Founders did, and turn to the Roman Republic and its own issues with mobs. Read on! W.J. Astore
Friends, Romans, Countrymen…Rioters?
In the days since the Capitol riot on January 6, pundits, politicians, and journalists have been underlining the shocking nature of the events of that day by comparing them to the sacking and burning of the Capitol by British troops during the War of 1812. Perhaps it is too big a stretch to compare the outcome of a military raid by a hostile foreign power to an attempt by a mob of US citizens to overturn a presidential election. A different historical precedent was suggested by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (D) in the hours after the Senate reconvened to finish its work of certifying the 2020 Electoral College vote. (The entirety of his remarks can be found between time signatures 27:49 and 33:15 here.)
A visibly shaken Bennet, who at one point in his remarks notes that, “there is a tendency around this place …to always believe that we’re the first people to confront something,” starts off by suggesting that when the Founders wrote the Constitution they were thinking about “what happened to the Roman Republic when armed gangs, doing the work of politicians, prevented [Roman citizens] from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators. These were the offices in Rome and those armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from even being called, and in the end because of that the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place. And that was the end of the Roman Republic or any republic until this beautiful Constitution was written in the United States of America.”
Putting aside some historical inaccuracies (e.g., Roman senators were not popularly elected), Bennet’s point about the importance of Roman precedent for the drafters of the Constitution and their concern about the destabilizing effects of popular mobs is largely right.
However, the lesson that Roman mobs would teach us in our contemporary moment is more complicated than warning of the threat mobs can pose to a constitutional order.
In the late Roman Republic, mobs were indeed politically mobilized against the constitutional order but oftentimes in pursuit of opening that constitutional order to the interests of the common people. Noted ancient historian Moses Finley wrote that, “it would not be far from the truth to say that the Roman populus exercised influence not through participation in the formal machinery of government, through its voting power, but by taking to the streets, by agitation, demonstrations and riots…” It is no small irony that the most (in)famous example of mob action in the Roman Republic was arguably in defense of the constitutional order when the populist tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and then his brother, Gaius, were defeated and killed by mob violence carried out at the instigation of Roman senators who felt their economic interests threatened.
When the histories of this time are written, will the attack on the Capitol be considered completely sui generis, unique and incomparable to other recent episodes of populist uprising? To be sure, the rioters in the Capitol were motivated by an unhinged demagogue telling a lie, unlike the BLM protesters against an unjust criminal justice system of last summer, or even the 2011-2012 Occupy Wall Street protestors against accelerating levels of politically dangerous social inequality. However wrong and pernicious the rightwing paranoia about the presidential election results was and is, it may become clear from an historical distance that the current instability of our constitutional system has as much, if not more, to do with the corruption of our political representatives by economic elites content to pile up obscene levels of wealth at the expense of the well-being of the rest of us.
Under the continuation of such a corrupted constitutional order, we can expect more popular uprisings, whether rationally motivated and aimed at reforming that order, or cynically incited and aimed at its overthrow. Only time will tell whether such protests, uprisings, and mobs will be in service of the Republic or of elites whose interests are contrary to those of the people.
M. Davout, an at-large contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the Deep South.