America’s Messiness Is Its Strength
As in the Holy Roman Empire, U.S. complexity and diversity let it thrive.
In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, the Week news magazine published an opinion by Ryan Cooper arguing not only that the United States is “the Holy Roman Empire of the 21st century” but that this is a bad thing. It’s not a new or an uncommon comparison. In the book The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, A. Wess Mitchell argues that the United States occupies an analogous geopolitical position to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and could learn from its successes and failures. As an analogy, though, it manages to be unfair to both the United States and the Holy Roman Empire. The desire for centralization and control misses exactly what made both powers survive and thrive.
Cooper is more dismissive than Mitchell. He calls the original empire’s legal institutions “complicated and illogical.” He claims the empire was “[s]urpassed by history” and “doomed.” Similarly, America’s basic mechanisms of government are “malfunctioning kludges.” He writes: “Countries that fail to maintain themselves to this degree often do not survive.” Cooper believes that like the vast collection of political entities that occupied Central Europe in the early modern period, the United States is “ripe for the picking by an opportunistic tyrant.”
In the empire’s case, this tyrant was Napoleon Bonaparte, commander in chief of the first modern national army and author of a legal code that influenced Germany’s current modern legal system—after he “swept away all the feudal cruft” of Germany’s earlier legal heritage, of course. Cooper admits this narrative is somewhat stretched, but he’s serious about his takeaway point: “Political systems require maintenance and regular updating to stay on top of the developments of history.”
Cooper is arguing that the U.S. electoral system is as out of touch with reality as he believes the Holy Roman Empire was in its later years. He judges the empire for not being a cohesive nation-state and marks the United States down likewise.
Ironically for a narrative that calls for reform, this picture of the empire is old. It draws on 19th-century nationalist Prussian historiography, which identified centralized nation-states like Prussia as destined to prevail over this immense and haphazard congeries of electorates, kingdoms, counties, duchies, margraviates and landgraviates, imperial free cities, imperial free abbeys, imperial free nunneries, imperial knights, and at least one county, Sayn-Wittgenstein-Hachenburg, that descended through the female line alone.
The implication is there is a timeline of development for states: progress, that vaporware idea. Cooper’s article opens with the statement that the Holy Roman Empire was an “anachronistic political fossil.” States that update (their laws, their armies) at the right time succeed. States that retain archaic elements—like the U.S. Constitution (one of the oldest still operating) and the Electoral College—are doomed and will be surpassed by history.
But history has no goal. There is no historical end point for states such that Napoleon’s France was further along its development toward it and the empire was less advanced. There are logical arguments to be made that a centralized state or a legal code like Napoleon’s or modern Germany’s should be preferable to a polity with multiple centers of power like the Holy Roman Empire or legal systems based on precedent like in the United States or United Kingdom. That they are newer isn’t one of them.
I’m not sure why Cooper assumes that “federal cruft” should be done away with in favor of a centralized and efficient system given who’s currently at the head of the U.S. executive. In an influential reimagining of the Holy Roman Empire, Mack Walker argues that its highly decentralized structure protected Germany’s smaller political entities. The empire was an “incubator” for local communities: “German Home Towns.”
America’s governors, mayors, senators, and representatives have been foci of resistance to U.S. President Donald Trump’s off-brand autocracy, like “sanctuary” jurisdictions. Since National Guard units are under the dual control of state and federal government, it has been difficult for Trump to control them to counter protests. The armed forces hate him, and U.S. Capitol Police answers to Congress. Trump used border patrol as riot police this summer because he was forced to by U.S. decentralization.
Regional officials like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have also provided necessary leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic—or, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, they have failed. Different responses by state governors have had profoundly different effects. Back in April, when U.S. states were coordinating their hypothetical COVID-19 reopening schedules in several overlapping groups, at least one joker on Twitter looked at the map and said: “Congrats, everyone. We invented the Holy Roman Empire.”
Cooper praises “efficient” governance, deliberately instituted. He calls the U.S. system lacking because it is “not designed to enable efficient, humane government.” But what a system is designed to do is not necessarily what it ends up capable of. To a great extent, the U.S. system—like the Holy Roman Empire’s before it—was not designed at all but grew. The empire had a constitution, but except for texts like the Golden Bull of 1356, this was unwritten: a mixed body of local laws, territorial statutes, and the ancient European ius commune, a medieval combination of canon law and Roman law. Yes, this is a kludge. Complex systems are full of them.
The Holy Roman Empire lasted a long time, but it was not changeless. Its laws and its governance developed throughout its existence. The historical interpretation of the empire has recently undergone a renaissance: Historians now point out that the maintenance and regular updating Cooper wants actually happened repeatedly. The Reformation prompted the development of a system where people of different religions could live together. The Thirty Years’ War resulted in the Peace of Westphalia.
The empire did not collapse because of a failure to update; it was invaded by a global superpower. But Napoleon’s modern national army eventually lost, up to date legal codes or no. He was beaten by the unregenerate armies of the United Kingdom and Russia, as well as a collection of German states, including some of Napoleon’s former subjects or allies. (The kingdom that gave us the Prussian historiography that informed Cooper’s opinion hasn’t done so well either.)
In Cooper’s analogy, Napoleon plays the part of Trump. But this isn’t quite right. Napoleon was a foreign head of state and the commander of an invading army. Instead I propose that the United States might look like the Holy Roman Empire 200 years before Napoleon, right before the Thirty Years’ War. Like the empire in the early 17th century, we may soon be facing a constitutional crisis. Like the empire, plenty of people are sniffing about U.S. politics hoping to benefit from this situation, and these people are weaker and more out of their depth than they believe.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to find a German Habsburg who can be compared to the malevolent vacuum at the top of the U.S. government. Rudolf II may have been going insane, but there the comparison ends. Ferdinand II’s choices, like the 1629 Edict of Restitution, aggravated the situation—but Ferdinand was also principled and God-fearing, and he did his duty as he understood it.
The Thirty Years’ War caused the deaths of up to one-third of the population of Central Europe. But the Holy Roman Empire not only survived this crisis; it lasted for another 158 years. After the war, the empire developed legal institutions that helped prevent something like it from happening again. Benjamin Franklin traveled to Germany in 1766 and met a leading German constitutional scholar because he was interested in the empire’s federal structure as a model for a political entity made up of several states, a political set of sets. This was how he saw the British Empire and the eventual American state.
If the United States is like the Holy Roman Empire, we could do worse than consider some of its characteristics: a sense of common identity juxtaposed with manifold diversity, an appreciation of resistance from below, and the participation of ordinary people in the political process. Those qualities have helped the United States last for over two centuries. They might let it equal the empire yet.