Monday, February 1, 2010

POTUS and Caesar

The day before the first anniversary of Barak Obama assuming the U.S. presidency, his Democratic-party candidate to succeed the late Ted Kennedy as senator from Massachusetts, went down to defeat to the Republican challenger, named Scott Brown. Just to emphasize: this was the former office of the "lion of American liberalism", held by the Kennedy family since 1952 (but for a couple of years, when John Kennedy vacated it to assume the presidency in 1961, and his younger brother, Teddy, was then too young to run for the office); in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of three to one; and where no Republican has won a Senate seat since 1972

Brown is no right-winger, but he vowed on the campaign trial that, if elected, he would vote against the health-care socialization bill that Senate Democrats, who held sixty of the 100 seats in the chamber, had threatened to invoke cloture on (thereby passing it into law). The Democrats, other leftists, and their many cheerleaders in the media were, at first, in deep shock as to this election results for the office that one pundit referred to as "Ted Kennedy's seat."

Having had time to rally, the left has seemingly succumbed to the same delusions that overcame some Republicans following the defeat of John McCain in 2008. Back then, American conservatives fervently believed that the public had rejected them because McCain was perceived as too moderate, and that if the party had only run a true conservative, the public would have backed them. Similarly, the instant dogma on the left is that the Democratic candidate lost to Scott Brown, because Obama was "too moderate." One Canadian former union official put it as such: "Obama was sent an ultimatum by the electors in one of the most liberal states in the union. It wasn't: Please compromise more. It wasn't: Don't forget to track down all the nuances before you make the slightest move." He concludes (with the emphasis in the original): "Yes, we're pissed off enough to put a homophobic Cosmo nudie with a taste for water-boarding into the Senate. Did that get your attention?"

Apparently, to this commentator, the election of a Republican senator in Massachusetts is some kind of guerilla theatre, wherein the people voted for someone who is entirely opposed to what they really believe in, as some kind of attention-getting ploy. Amazing.

Another Canadian, who identifies himself as a "conservative", took a rather different tack. Although everyone acknowledges that the election of Scott Brown was a referendum on the presidency of Barak Obama and his health-care "reform", radio host John Moore said that this is just the "loss of one lousy Senate seat." It was so lousy, apparently, that Obama took time out from his busy scheduled to jet in to try and save his clearly failing candidate. Somehow, according to Moore, to suggest that the loss of Massachusetts senate seat is important, is part of the "new intolerance."

I'm not certain how sincere Democrats and leftists in general, really are with this thinking. There must be some element of face-saving, here, surely. I'm very sceptical than any serious political operative within the Democratic party actually believes that the aftermath of the election of Scott Brown should be that the Obama government becomes even more so what the public is clearly rejecting. As it stands, no one believes that Obama's ambitious efforts to socialize American health care has a chance of becoming law, at least not the bill that the Democrats had threatened legislative cloture upon prior to the election.

I'm scarcely a fan of the Republican party. I am, however, heartened that the party has managed to revive itself in the year-plus since the 2008 election (heeding the lesson, finally, that it they did not lose because the party ran a moderate candidate rather than a right-winger). Long-term dominance by one party, whether Liberal or Conservative, Democratic or Republican, is no good in a democracy.

On the other hand, the more I look at America these days, the more so I am reminded of ancient Rome. This is hardly a novel analogy: but my own comparison is not with the Rome of the third and fourth century of the Christian calendar, the period prior to it final collapse. I'm thinking instead of the closing decades of republican Rome, when the Italian confederacy at which the original city-state stood at the head, finally transformed itself into an imperial monarchy (in all but name).

Studying ancient history, I was always struck by the parallels between the rise of Rome and the development of the United States, from its origins in the "thirteen colonies" to the continental polity as it exists in the present day. In both ancient Rome and revolutionary America, prospering yeoman farmers and slave-holding landholders, supplemented by urban merchants and others of the "middling sort", rebelled and expelled their king, establishing self-government. Neither Rome nor America were, during their early republican eras, democratic in the modern sense, let alone compared to the direct democracy that was practised in the city that came to be so influential upon the Romans, ancient Attica. It was not only that, in the early United States, women and (naturally) slaves were denied the vote; even white men without property qualifications couldn't vote in Congressional elections (the Senate was appointed until 1912), which was in turn a significant number of this demographic.

The American presidency, meanwhile, wasn't really directly elected until 1828, when the votes of the Electoral College were rendered a post-facto formality. The early United States, like early Rome, was what I call an aristocratic republic. In neither ancient Rome, nor the early U.S. were the aristocrats granted noble titles. Yet, the elites of both polities recognized themselves, and were recognized by others, as a patriciate standing apart from the rest. It took much longer, in Rome, for the plebes to achieve full popular sovereignty, than was the case in the U.S.

There are, of course, many differences between America and Rome, as there are between any two polities. But the early American patriciate, themselves looked to republican Rome as their chief influence (as evidenced in the architectural style of the Capitol building, the White House, Supreme Court and so on). One chief difference between Roman and American government, was that the former refused to invest executive power in a single individual — the president — and instead opted for a dual proconsulship. This would, the Romans hoped, prevent the emergence of a single ruler, who could attempt to reimpose a monarchy. The ultimate result of the dual rulers was the exacerbation of schism within the Roman government itself. Ultimately, the Romans created the office of Dictator, who in times of emergency or internal strife, was given authoritarian powers to defend the republic from threats internal or external, for the period of a year only. Again, however, the Dictatorship spurred yet more schism, as many of those chosen for office, refused to leave after the year term.

This leads to, in turn, perhaps the most significant difference between late-republican Rome and the United States during the contemporary era (1920s on): whereas the Romans, prior to the appearance of Caesar, and ultimately, his step-son Augustus, were engaged in civil war more frequently than not, the Americans have had one such conflict in their history, and that was a long time ago. But even so, part of the reason why the Roman republic became an empire, was that Rome already was an empire by the time Julius Caesar came along. The institutions established to rule a city-state, and then a confederacy of such states, were insufficient to govern the vast territory controlled by the Latins by the second century before the calendar. I don't believe that the United States is an empire, under any meaningful use of that term. But because all the other great powers chose to destroy themselves during the World Wars, the U.S. became the default hegemon, at least of that part of the Cold War world not under control of Communist governments. But the responsibilities this entails, have been as challenging to governing institutions of the U.S., as much as if the Americans became the dominant global state — the hyper-power — by conquest instead of consent.

Recently, I came across a piece by Washington Post columnist George Will, about "Washington's latest awful idea", that idea being "for Congress to divest itself of the core competence that the Constitution vests in it — the power to make the taxing and spending choices that shape the nation. This power would be given to an 18-member panel assigned to solve the budgetary crisis."

The devolution of sovereignty from legislative bodies to organizations, agencies and committees that are not directly responsible to the electorate, was a feature, too, of the decline of Roman republicanism. It is commonplace not only in the United States, but in every other Western democracy, as well. Take the aforementioned health-care restructuring bill that Scott Brown promised to help filibuster, should he be elected to the U.S. Senate. This proposed law runs to more than 1,900 pages of legal text, yet the Senators who support it openly admit that they have never read in whole (some even say that they have not read even a word of the bill itself). A different bill (also floundering before the U.S. senate) which would "cap-and-trade" carbon dioxide emissions, so as to help prevent the greenhouse-effect (is it too early to ask, "Whatever happened to the climate-change panic?"), is not quite that long, but it is more than 1,000 pages, and many senators have stated openly that they've never read it either.

It is obvious, though, that someone has read the entire of this bill, and of course, someone, or rather some people, actually wrote the bill. It wasn't, though, the legislators who are supposed to either pass it into law, or defeat it, by majority vote. Again, responsibility for this vast undertaking by the U.S. federal government was farmed out to lawyers, presumably those in the employ of the government itself, but also no doubt to various attorneys belonging to the various lobby groups representing the interests most affected by the bill itself.

Of course, the process by which the administrative power of the U.S. government was delegated to officials without direct responsibility to the public, began long, long before Barak Obama became the president. The "imperial presidency" began probably with the first Roosevelt to occupy the White House, Theodore (who served as president from 1901 to 1909); but it really got going with "Teddy's" distant cousin, Franklin Delano, the longest serving U.S. president, from 1933 to ‘45. FDR was charged with fighting the Depression and World War II, but the war-powers granted to (say) Abe Lincoln during the War Between the States, or to Woodrow Wilson during the Great War, were not subsequently relinquished to the second Roosevelt's successors, after the conclusion the Second World War (Franklin Roosevelt himself died some months before the war came to an end in August, 1945), due to the need to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

As well, Roosevelt's "new deal" social programmes marked the beginning of the American welfare state, which expanded slowly following World War II, and then greatly with the "great society" measures introduced by Lyndon Johnson (president, 1963-69). The welfare state required yet more delegation of responsibility to unelected officials than ever before. Add to this the need of this behemoth government to collect the taxes to pay for itself (not to mention the other activities taken on by the executive branch, such as hunting down illegal firearms, smugglers of non-excised taxed commodities — ie. tobacco and alcohol, as well as sellers of illicit drugs).

Such are the leviathan powers now possessed by the office of the President of the United States — not the least of which is the power to take the country to war without an even an resolution of the Congress — that one wonders when the American executive branch will become all-powerful, and the U.S. Senate, like its Roman predecessor, an ineffective talk-shop. One wonders if the new imperator will have a title such as "POTUS", to suit her or his august position.

No comments:

Post a Comment