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.