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Dusk of Democracy, Part One

Image via Politico

Around the stadium, gladiators draped in silver armor and wielding swords rush at each other. In the stands above, thousands of Roman citizens cheer for their favorites and jeer at those they like least. On the side of this orchestrated chaos stands an ambitious young Julius Caesar, who funded this spectacle in an attempt to move his way up the political ladder by hosting the best, most extravagant gladiatorial games.

Despite plunging into financial debt to host these events, Caesar understood the power of “bread and circuses”—panem et circenses—a term that would later be coined by the poet Juvenal. The adoration of the masses was the ultimate currency, and through entertainment, he could channel this favor into real political power.

The Late Roman Republic, beginning around 146 BCE, was characterized by an alarming concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Historical estimates suggest that Rome’s top 1 percent controlled approximately 16 percent of the wealth, a disparity that fueled social and political tensions between the lower-class plebeians and the upper-class patricians—especially when the patricians began purchasing large swaths of land from farmers. The Gracchi brothers, two reformist politicians, were infuriated with this “process of dispossession” and aggressively pushed for land reform; however, their actions provoked the patrician class, ultimately resulting in their violent deaths at the hands of fellow senators. The failure of their reform efforts made average Romans feel that the Republic was no longer working in their favor.

Caesar sought to distract from this discontent with his expensive games, using the arena as a stage on which to build his base of support, appealing to the masses even as he epitomized the elite against whom they harbored grievances.

Today, the United States sees its top 1 percent controlling a staggering 40 percent of the country’s wealth. This modern-day inequality mirrors the societal divisions of Caesar’s Rome, laying fertile ground for the rise of populist leaders who, much like Caesar, aspire to wealth yet promise reform and representation for the lower classes. These figures, charismatic and controversial, tap into the wellspring of dissatisfaction among those who feel left behind, promising to upend the system in their favor.

Donald Trump, in his evolution from reality TV star to president, epitomizes our modern “bread and circuses.” Like Caesar, Trump speaks to the disenfranchised, positioning himself as a champion of the “common man,” despite his lifestyle of decadence and corruption. The circuses of ancient Rome have morphed into the 24-hour news cycle, social media scandals, and the kind of sensational political rallies Trump is famous for. These events serve not just as platforms for divisive political messaging but also as distractions from the erosion of democratic norms. 

New research finds a correlation between a nation’s economic inequality and the rise of populist leaders. A key factor in this phenomenon is the way inequality erodes social trust and cohesion, affecting both the wealthy and lower classes. Populist leaders adeptly use the grievances born from inequality, portraying themselves as the sole defenders of national interests and identity. They tap into widespread perceptions of neglect by the traditional political elite, promising to rectify the injustices felt by many. This strategy allows them to rally support from the disenfranchised poor who feel left behind by globalization and technological change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, in recent years the Democratic Party has witnessed a decline in support from its traditional working-class base, a significant portion of which has shifted allegiance to Trump. 

Moreover, the perception of a declining nation contributes just as much to the rise of populism as the economic reality alone. In 2019, scientists from 30 universities investigated how differences in wealth and income affect people’s desire for authoritative leadership, discovering that in countries with a stark wealth divide, people are more likely to “abandon democratic principles” and seek an authoritarian populist leader. Curiously, “only perceived inequality appeared to have any relationship with a sense of societal and governmental corrosion.” Despite promising economic indicators, most people in the United States today think the economy is doing worse than it is—in part because of populist messaging designed to stir concern. Amy Castro, a Social Policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, highlights this dissonance: “We have clearly had a market recovery since 2008. However, we have not had a human recovery. We’re talking about people who have worked hard their entire lives, feel as though they’ve played by the rules, and they’re losing… I think there is something about Trump that speaks to that.”

History makes clear that these political strategies, which exploit the very real ills of inequality, can have grave consequences for democracy. Return to 44 BCE and we see Caesar crowning himself dictator perpetuo: dictator for life. In doing so, he single-handedly ended the democratic precedent in place since 753 BCE. His imperial aims served as the ultimate democratic backsliding, disenfranchising millions under the guise of populism: perhaps one of the greatest contradictions in history. 

Today, many people remember Caesar fondly or strongly. But at the time, his inauguration was catastrophic: It undermined the foundations of the Republic. It would be as if January 6 resulted in Trump declaring himself “President Until Death.” Roman elites and senators were plunged into chaos until they formed a conspiracy to end Caesar’s reign. Just a month after crowning himself for life, Caesar was stabbed and killed at a Senate meeting, and Rome fell into a series of civil wars that ultimately led to the fall of the Republic and the formation of the Empire. The populist experiment had failed.

The comparison between the Roman Republic and present-day America should have our attention: The underlying economic and social conditions that allowed Caesar to find popular support offer us warning signs. Understanding the fall of the Roman Republic becomes increasingly relevant as we observe contemporary challenges, such as the significant growth in economic inequality in the United States during the pandemic. 

The correlation between socioeconomic inequality and the rise of populist leaders emphasizes the need to address these disparities proactively. Unchecked inequality and the seduction of populist promises can lead to the erosion of democratic norms and the rise of autocratic rule. Populist leaders—from Trump to Caesar—stoke tensions between the haves and have-nots, riling up the masses: a strategy that remains highly effective 2000 years later.