"Under a democratical government, the citizens exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abased, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude."
— Edward Gibbon, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"
WASHINGTON — The period of the American Revolution coincided with publication of Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (1776), and ever since we've been vigilant for signs that the United States was following in Rome's footsteps.
There's no need to exhaust the already exhaustive list of parallels. But as we approach the political conventions, and are already worn down by ceaseless partisan bickering, the mind easily finds its way to Rome's Coliseum, where powerful political families sought to entertain, pacify and distract the multitudes.
We may no longer feed Christians to lions, but the operating premise feels fresh enough. Keep attention riveted on the circus and people may not notice their discontent. Or the corruption in their midst.
Says Gracchus to Falco in the film "Gladiator": "Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they'll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it's the sand of the coliseum. He'll bring them death — and they will love him for it."
The public's tolerance for blood was somewhat heartier in those days. We don't literally slay our political opponents. Our weapons are more discreet — coded words and strategic messaging rather than swords and tridents. Bloodletting of a higher order.
Similarities otherwise are plentiful. During the heyday of the empire, as today, only the very wealthy could run for high office. Aiding and abetting our chosen few are scores of handlers, bundlers and private funders. The widespread fear of corporate control of the political system under Citizens United turns out to have been a lesser threat than a few individuals wreaking havoc or imposing their own utopian vision by writing checks large enough to fund small nations.
At least one needn't worry long about principle, given that whatever designs are in play will be largely ignored and/or quickly forgotten. Such is the attention span of the populace, which, through a collision of economic realities, complex issues, and the amped-up expectations imposed by new technologies, has lost the ability to focus long on anything.
Lost for good is time to consume and cogitate at a pace that permits much sense. In this environment, the politician's imperative is to say as little of substance as possible and to say it often. For the media, in perpetual competition for buzz, blog traffic and twitter feeds, the mandate is to say as much as possible, as often as possible in a steady stream of consciousness.
At the end of the day, a few honed and shiny nuggets will have embedded in the collective psyche. But is anyone the wiser, and will the best candidate win? Will substance prevail, or will the war of words so baffle and mystify that the legions will cast their ballots for the candidate who most resembles them? Or for the person whose words somehow managed to penetrate the wall of noise that surrounds us all and push just the right button?
Mitt Romney had that dog on top his car that time. Can't vote for him. Barack Obama palled around with terrorists. Where was he born, anyway?
What day or column would be complete without a few words from Joe Biden? Latest to the Coliseum, a few (accidental or well-chosen) words from the vice president: Romney's plan for financial regulation will "put y'all back in chains."
Biden, who often slips a few IQ points when he drops below the Mason-Dixon line, was addressing a mixed-race audience in Danville, Va. Was he free-associating? Did the vice president see African-American faces and reflexively think of slavery? Or was he just being Joe? Once in South Carolina, trying to establish a common bond with his audience, Biden said that he, too, was from a slave state. Way to connect, Joe.
Already, the consensus seems to be that, aw, you know Joe. He's just a blue-collar boy from Scranton who speaks his mind, is all. Besides, say Democrats, Republicans started the metaphor by saying they wanted to unshackle the private sector. Biden was simply extending the metaphor.
Whatever the case, the point has been made, the suggestion placed, the people have been distracted. And so it goes ... and so it went. And they conjured magic, and they took away their freedom, and the mob roared.