Sunday, October 20, 2013

Partisan Politics, Part I

     During the last hundred years of the Roman Republic, before Cæsar launched the transition to autocratic rule, there developed two main coalitions in Roman politics. These were the Populares, who promoted the interests of the poor, and the Optimates, who promoted the interests of the rich. Earlier in Roman history, the ancestors of these political coalitions were the plebeians and patricians; in those days, there was no distinction between economic and social class—generally the rich men were aristocratic patricians, for instance—and something of this class loyalty persisted all the way down to the time of Marius and Sulla. It was the plebeian Gaius Marius who adopted the Populares, while the patrician Lucius Cornelius Sulla advanced the cause of the Optimates. Ironically, in the very next generation, the patrician Julius Cæsar became a Popularis, while the plebeian Pompey Magnus wound up defending the Optimate cause. One might think that as social and economic class began to dissociate, party cohesion would likewise have melted a little. Instead, it seems to have intensified. The Optimates and Populares found themselves literally at each other’s throats, unable to compromise on anything. Ultimately, their mutual antagonism led to social and political chaos, which in turn almost begged for an authoritarian solution. Augustus’ long and stable reign yielded the material benefits that political chaos always endangers. He proved in the laboratory of history that the Romans, whose ancestors had sworn never to tolerate a king, ultimately cared more about bread and circuses than they did about liberty.

   To return to the Populares and Optimates, they were not precisely like our Democrats and Republicans. But the story of the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, and especially the role partisan politics played therein, should give us a sense of unease as we survey today’s partisan landscape. The most obvious example of this partisan inflexibility today is the recent collision over the Affordable Care Act (or, Obamacare—even the name has partisan overtones). Except in this case, it really does appear that one side was forced to compromise in the end.

     Consider the widespread indictment of the Republicans, that they were being irresponsible in offering a budget they knew in advance the Senate and the President would not sign. It takes only a trivial reflection to recognize this assessment as excusing Democrat inflexibility. If it is irresponsible for the Republicans to offer a budget the other side will not approve, then apparently the Democrats are somehow entitled to their own position without compromise. On this logic, it is the duty of the Republicans—who control the House, the body that the Constitution charges with originating all spending—to concede whatever it takes to obtain Democrat approval, even if the Democrats themselves make no concessions. This is not negotiation; it’s an ultimatum.

     In politics, the stronger party is always able to enforce ultimatums. In this case, the party that the majority of Americans judged to be more reasonable was the party that would prevail. In a perfect world, the public’s perception would have matched reality, and so the Republicans were not a priori the weaker (which is to say, apparently unreasonable) party. They proposed bill after bill, conceding more ground each time and thereby (as should have happened) establishing their good faith and reasonableness. Nonetheless, they lost. Despite their series of compromise offers and the Democrats’ refusal to compromise on anything, the Republicans lost the match. Moreover, much of the public will not only blame them for the shutdown, but also scorn them as losers (Americans still respect a winner, after all). How did the Democrats pull off this coup?

     One way only: the connivance of the media.


  1. Toynbee's theory of rise, decline and fall of civilizations was "challenge and response:" that civilizations rise by responding innovatively to challenges (for instance, the Sumerians 5000-4500BC created an agrarian culture to overcome the limits of hunting/gathering, and by 2700BC had further created writing for accountancy purposes and a temple-centered social structure to organize divisions of labor and solve problems of distribution, which led in turn to written literature and law)(WHEW!) ... And civilizations fall when their leaders no longer innovate, no longer rise to challenges, and incidentally solidify around corrupt self-preservation among the elites. I think what you've described in the Romans (and ourselves) fits that pattern. We should be afraid, very afraid.

    1. I just don't know whether history is a good model for us or not. I used to think so, essentially because I could not see any reason we should be exempt. Perhaps our technology and material wealth may just be enough of a difference.

  2. I am not sure that the media can influence things quite as much as you suppose. I am from the UK and I can remember supporters of the Labour Party blaming adverse media coverage for their poor performance at the polls in the eighties. The media remained hostile, but the party changed its approach and went on to win several elections.

    I think the Republicans were clearly following some pretty poor tactics on this issue. What would have happened if they had succeeded in derailing a popular bill by this stance? I suspect that would have made them still more unpopular. I don't know the details of the US constitution so I'll concede you may be right technically that they had the right to do what they did. But constitutions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

    For a party that is probably the best fit to the sentiments of the majority in America to get itself into such a state is basically a question of party management. The media and longer term factors may have some influence but at the end of the day the Republicans short term problems are down to their own actions.

    1. History Scientist, glad you dropped by again. The media influence in the States really is enormous. Most Americans pay little attention to politics. What attention they do pay goes to a handful of network sources that simply omitted the information that the Republicans had made a series of compromise offers. Story selection, leading questions, and bullying of any Republicans brave enough to submit to interviews were all very evident.

      This is not to say, of course, that the Republicans didn't fumble the ball themselves. Knowing they faced a biased media, surely they should have seen how this would end. On the other hand, if the ACA does implode--as it seems to be doing, with impossible web sites and Byzantine bureaucracy--then no one will forget that the Republicans tried to stop it. Who knows, in the end, how it will play?

      As for the popularity of the program, the polling I've heard about shows a strong majority of Americans do not want it. I can't vouch for the polling, but it's at least plausible that there really is meaningful opposition to the ACA among the voters. Now that the shutdown drama is shut down, maybe the weaknesses of the program will take center stage.

  3. This was a very good important article. I was wondering a while back how Ancient Rome did everything, where do Conservative Republicans, Liberal Democrates, fit in there. How did they handle Health Care, Taxation, and all of the various programs. How did they handle Education? Private Enterprize? Pretty much all the stuff we have on the table now, I want to know how it figures in to Ancient Rome?