Politics in Decline: Can We Avoid the Fall?
In his book “The Storm Before the Storm,” Mike Duncan outlines the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic in the first century BCE. The political, familial, demographic and military intrigues became wrapped into one unhealthy Venn diagram of parochial and personal interests, hyper-pandering to different segments of the Roman citizenry and long, expensive foreign wars that rewarded some Romans with triumphs and left others destitute and deserted, far from home.
The traditions, social contracts and political norms that had kept Rome stable, prosperous and growing for centuries were systematically dismantled in favor of those who would scheme and conspire to gain power for its own sake. The Assembly, the Senate and the consuls struggled mightily against one another and juggled the whims of the various segments of Roman society -- the optimates and the populares. As the republic began its metamorphosis into empire, politicians began rallying the anger and resentment of the populare to elevate themselves.
The last two years have roiled American politics more than any time since the late 1960s. Between the ugly and uninspiring contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Trump’s mind-bending first year in office, Americans are constantly and continuously unhappy with our political system and the two major political parties that control it. This despite an economy that is finally shaking off the 2008-2009 economic crisis.
The country is divided: along political lines, ideological lines, demographic lines and geographic lines. Many red state voters feel ridiculed and belittled and showed their strength by electing a president who is anathema to many blue state voters from coast to coast. Many blue state voters lament their looming tax increases and having to send more of their hard-earned money to Washington and then onto those same red states they see as backward and undeserving of coastal elites’ largesse.
While no one has been stabbed on Capitol Hill and unceremoniously dumped in the Potomac, the sometime-tradition of elected representatives working together across party lines has been replaced by more than just partisanship. With the exception of a few small clusters of moderate lawmakers, representatives and senators from opposing parties take on a decidedly ugly mien when discussing rival proposals and one another.
Defeating one’s opponent, or their tribe, is the highest order of the day. In last week’s government shutdown, the issues at play were quickly subsumed into a self-generated game of who would “win” the politics. Our kids, our elderly, our military and 800,000 children of illegal immigrants became bargaining chips for both the red and blue teams to push back and forth across the table. Our “representatives” have lost the will and the ability to govern. Among a vast majority of Americans, they’ve also lost the credibility to do so.
President Trump is at the forefront of the childish behavior that two-thirds of the country, and many of his own supporters, wish would stop. But like any good schoolyard bully, he understands how to get under his opponents’ skin and stay there. Also like a bully, though, his actions are solely focused on belittling and upsetting those around him. This might be fine for a kid named Biff, not so for the president of the United States.
The White House and, by extension, the administration are breaking down our political norms in ways that cause no immediate upheaval. Whether it is the president’s obsession with (and continuing criticism of) the FBI, his family members’ repeated filing of incomplete security forms (or strolling over to the Russian Embassy) or the once-a-month sycophantic stage play that are Cabinet meetings, Trump has no need for tradition, nor any appreciation of it.
Now we must ask ourselves: Are we going to go down the Appian Way or chart a new American Way? History may not repeat itself, but it does present us with a guide through similar events, and more importantly, a Rosetta stone of human behavior. People are people, regardless of the age. Power is power, regardless of the century, and the dynamics play out similarly. Regardless of what path we choose, the outcome is still unknowable. What we can control, though, is how we proceed on this American journey, the people we choose to represent us, the way we choose them and how we communicate, and insist on, our expectations of them.
Doing this work will not be easy, nor will it take place overnight. Our addiction to short-termism, a contributing factor to our current situation, will not help matters. But it is work worth doing. It is work worth the effort and frustrations of starting with an atlas that contains no maps and knowing that we, all of us individually and collectively, will have our part to play in this adventure.