If some of us anti-Bush Americans seem on the verge of a nervous breakdown in these final days, it's not necessarily because John Kerry is our heart's desire or even because George W. Bush and Co., under cover of fighting terrorism, are spending the country into crushing debt that will drive the social compact back to the 1890s. Nor are we wrought up because a Republican ticket led by two former draft dodgers (as defined by every conservative Republican since the late 1960s, when both men did their dodging), has savaged war heroes like Max Cleland, John McCain, and Kerry himself.
The republic has survived excesses like that, if barely. What really scares some of us is the foreboding that, this time, it won't outlast the swooning and the eerily disembodied cheering at those Bush revival rallies. Something has happened to enough of the American people to make some warnings by this country's own Founders leap off the page as never before.
As soon as King George III was gone, the Founders took one look at the American people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. History showed them it can happen not with a coup but a smile and a friendly swagger, as soon as the people tire of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied along into servitude -- or scared into it, when they've become soft enough to intimidate.
Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes when he wrote that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
And Ben Franklin sketched the odds, warning that the Constitution "can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other."
How might that happen? "History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces," wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee.
The Founders were all reading Edward Gibbon's then-new account of how the Roman republic had slipped, degree by self-deluding degree, into an imperial tyranny. Leaders could bedazzle citizens out of their liberties by titillating and intimidating them into becoming bread-and-circus mobs that "no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army."
Gibbon added pointedly that Augustus, the first emperor, "wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government" and that he knew that "the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom." Campaigning in an open shirt, as it were, "that artful prince humbly solicited their suffrages for himself, for his friends and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate. The emperors disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power. In all the offices of life they affected to confound themselves with their subjects and maintained with them an equal intercourse of visits and entertainments."
And so Rome became what Gibbon called "an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth," not by conspiracy but thanks to a confluence of deeper currents that had enervated people's republican virtues and beliefs.
But isn't this what Bush and the Republicans say they want to save us from, with the help of God and martial valor? Isn't it big-government liberals who would coddle us into servitude and decadence? Plenty of liberal folly has reinforced that perception, but so has Americans' reluctance to admit that the tutelage of public (i.e., big private) corporations, not government, has become ever more confining, intrusive, and even degrading in employment, in entertainment, and even in the subtle skewing of public discourse (news organizations, take note) and government itself.
John Adams wasn't blaming only government when he warned that, "[w]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society."
The point was that you don't strengthen freedom by handing the people over from their elected officials to their paymasters. Honorable American conservatives -- diplomats, retired generals, even some pundits -- do want to spare us that fate. Scott McConnell just "endorsed" Kerry, whom he seems to detest, in The American Conservative, on the grounds that "[Bush's] continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations."
Two veteran diplomats, Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, sounded like John Adams recently in warning that under the Bush rhetoric about terrorism, the American people are like "a frog placed in a bowl of cool water as it is slowly heated over a fire. At the point the frog realizes the danger it is in, it is already too weakened to get out. It is boiled alive. Americans today find themselves in water with the temperature rising. To date the political discourse, impregnated as it is with neoconservative formulations, has led them to acquiesce in the demands of those who are stoking the fire."
Walter Lippmann understood what was at risk in such acquiescence. "The kind of self-education which a self-governing people must obtain can be had only through its daily experience, he wrote. In other words, a democracy must have a way of life which educates the people for the democratic way of life. It is social control, not by authority from above but by a common law which defines the reciprocal rights and duties of persons. Thus in a free society the state administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs."
When a bystander in Philadelphia asked Franklin what kind of government the delegates were creating, Franklin answered, "A republic, if you can keep it." It's not John Kerry's campaign but the late emergence of conservatives who care for the republic that is encouraging some of us to work harder for a republican spirit that will be stronger than whatever the next four years bring.
Jim Sleeper is a political-science lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches a seminar on "New Conceptions of American National Identity".