Coburn and the Lifespan of Republics

Do republics expire after 200 years due to fiscal irresponsibility?

Today, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was on  FNS and he provided a fairly sober assessment of the fiscal circumstances of the United States. While I disagree with comparisons to Ireland and Greece, he makes some legitimate points about getting our financial house in order. He concluded (more or
less) withe the following:

Chris, the history of republics is they average 200 years of life. And they all fail in the history over fiscal matters. They rot from within before they collapse or are attacked. And it’s always over fiscal issues.

This kind of statement drives me crazy for a variety of reasons.*  The main reason being that prior to the founding of the United States there simply is no comparable governmental system. Yes, there were states that called themselves “republics” prior to the creation of the US, but as Madison himself noted in Federalist 39, a lot of countries (and city-states) have aspired to be called “republics” and yet have failed to meet that lofty goal.

Usually people hearken  back to the Roman Republic as the point of comparison.  However, this is a rather specious case for comparison. First, the actual form of government was radically different than what we have in the US.  Second, the very basis of what “governing” meant in that era v. now is rather extreme in terms of difference.  I must confess that that the argument that all republics fell because of fiscal policies is a new one as usually people make this argument by asserting that that it was moral decline that destroys republics (and they use usually use Rome as the example).

*One which has to do with the “republic v. democracy” argument that I am not going to get into now.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps the good doctor should stick to delivering more babies rather than trying to deliver history lessons…

  2. ponce says:

    I bet Coburn could tell us exactly which dinosaurs people used to ride around on, too.

  3. B. Minich says:

    This lifespan seems like it is pulled out of thin air. I see no basis in reality for that “fact”. The Roman Republic lasted over twice that long, clocking in at over 475 years (give or take a few years). Plus, what seems to have caused Rome to fall were the offices of state and their limitations losing their legitimacy. Nobody paid attention to the limits of elected offices, which eroded trust in the state. I don’t see this as a problem right now. Call me when we start electing Presidents to third terms because the nation “needs” it. The other thing that contributed was the building of a mod oriented politics. Both sides vying for control of the state started employing angry mobs which stirred up trouble for their opponents. Our polarizing society IS an issue here. But nobody is violent yet, and we seem a while from that point.

    I just don’t see the late Republic’s problem as a fiscal one. Rome just wasn’t broke at this point in her history. There were other times when she was. The crisis of the third century was brought about by overpaying the army, among other issues. But Caesar rose because the state was BROKEN, not because it was broke.

  4. Eric Florack says:

    What he’s suggesting doesn’t seem inconsistent with Franklin’s warning, though, does it?

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    I’m sure if we looked at Coburn’s voting record, we would see the record of a man who has never voted for a spending increase that was not paid for by tax increases or spending cuts, and a man who has never voted for tax cuts without commiserate cuts in spending. Right?

    @Florack – You know Franklin’s “warning” is apocryphal, right?

  6. tom p says:

    >”@Florack – You know Franklin’s “warning” is apocryphal, right?”

    Alex, you give Erik too much credit.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    This thing from Coburn is exactly the kind of brainlessness that will catch on with the right wing echosphere. We’ll be hearing about this bogus 200 year lifespan forever.

    Because, as Steven points out, the USA is so very much like the Venetian Republic which, incidentally, did not last 200 years then die of financial difficulties but in fact lasted 1000 years and died of Bonaparte disease.

    Let’s see, on the one hand a tiny city-state in a more or less perpetual state of war, and on the other a continental superpower. Yes: identical.

    But WTF, true enough for Fox news.

  8. sam says:

    This is probably as good a place as any to tout Roy Edroso’s The 10 Best Rightblogger Rants of 2010: Obama vs. Jesus, The Sperm Donor Menace, And More! over at the Village Voice site. Alas, BitEric did not make the cut. But hang in there, dude, there’s always next year. (Well, I don’t think he made the cut, but Roy does tip his hat to somebody who calls himself Buzzsawmonkey for his graphic at Pajamas Media depicting the Texas evolution-in-the-textbooks controversy as a tug-a-war between Marx and Obama, and Jesus and Texas for — I guess — the soul of a little boy. BitEric has “published” at PJM, and he does change his name, and …).