This Election and the Nature of Republics



by Mark Safranski

Our publisher Joe kindly requested of his writers our thoughts on the upcoming presidential election. He did so before the nation was rocked Friday by the letter sent by the Director of the FBI, James Comey, to the Congressional oversight committees that his prior testimony in regard to Secretary Clinton’s private email server may possibly be impacted by discovery of new evidence in an unrelated investigation. I have no intention of wading into that mess here but suffice to say this turn of events was another marker in one of the ugliest and strangest presidential campaigns in American history. In terms of divisive nastiness, only 1800 and 1860 were worse, which is hardly a comforting thought and for pure weirdness, 2016 is second to none.

Why is this?

Certainly, the two candidates who are each in their own very different ways, dysfunctional and highly unpopular human beings should bear considerable blame. They have run the campaigns that they chose to run in the primaries and the general with the attendant lying, slandering, demonizing, underhanded conspiring and unprecedented behavior they consciously decided to use in seeking the Oval Office. This might be tolerable if Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton were otherwise laudatory in their personal characters, but sadly, neither would have made it past the first primary during the Cold War with their personal baggage. One candidate is a corrupt influence peddler, habitual rule-breaker and liar with a cosmic level sense of entitlement and the other a ranting, bigoted, demagogue whose inner circle is tied to Russian oligarchs and who may actually be clinically emotionally disturbed. One of them come January is going to sit where Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and where John F. Kennedy spoke to the world about a possible nuclear war.

As awful a Hobbesian choice the two candidates represent, all of the blame cannot be laid at their door. To a degree, they are a mirror reflecting back an increasingly fearful, angry, irrational and uncivil American society that is riven by class and cultural identities, political polarization and decaying communal institutions. The quaint era when liberal Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan would cross political swords until 5:00 pm and then knock off and have a drink together and swap jokes and stories is long gone. Most Americans have retreated to a political and social bubble where they live, work and interact primarily with people with whom they already agree and then go online to seek out further confirmation of what they already believe. The media, once proud of its independence are actively collaborating with politicians and parties to suppress or spin “news” for political effect (Read American news in foreign media and compare how the stories with political angles are covered there compared to US outlets. It’s an eye-opener).

The result is what RAND scholar David Ronfeldt calls “political tribalism” with Americans less attached to arguing the merits of particular policies or even parties than internalizing their side as a “tribal identity” and the “other” as an enemy whose rights need not be respected. The lightning speed and ease with which millions of American liberals and conservatives reversed their previously strongly opinions of the integrity of FBI Director Comey in the last 24 hours without the slightest expression of discomfort recalls George Orwell’s 1984. We have always, you see, been at war with Eastasia. All that was required was the “trigger” of their side being in perceived disadvantage or benefit because of the Director’s letter. Tribal societies such as Afghanistan or Congo are “low trust” societies because where the rule of law is absent, weak or its legitimacy is tainted by corruption or favoritism, people tend to fall back on the security of blood/kinship ties (even if the kinship is artificial, like membership in a gang, mafia or cult). Political tribalization in American life is a worrisome sign that not all is well with key democratic institutions in our society.

Our Republic is no longer young and the historical experience of democracies and republics is that when their sense of public virtue and civic spirit erode, the political character of the state begins to decline. Polybius, the ancient Greco-Roman historian who had studied the experience of Athens and also that of his adopted Rome, believed this to be cyclical:

“In old times, then, those who had once been chosen to the royal office continued to hold it until they grew old, fortifying and enclosing fine strongholds with walls and acquiring lands, in the one case for the sake of the security of their subjects and in the other to provide them with abundance of the necessities of life. And while pursuing these aims, they were exempt from all vituperation or jealousy, as neither in their dress nor in their food did they make any great distinction, the lived very much like everyone else, not keeping apart from the people.

But when they received the office by hereditary succession and found their safety now provided for, and more than sufficient provision of food, they gave way to their appetites owing to this superabundance, and came to think that the rulers must be distinguished from their subjects by a peculiar dress, that there should be a peculiar luxury and variety in the dressing and serving of their viands, and that they should meet with no denial in the pursuit of their amours, however lawless. These habits having given rise in the one case to envy and offence and in the other to an outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship changed into a tyranny; the first steps towards its overthrow were taken by the subjects, and conspiracies began to be formed. These conspiracies were not the work of the worst men, but of the noblest, most high-spirited, and most courageous, because such men are least able to brook the insolence of princes. 

The people now having got leaders, would combine with them against the ruling powers for the reasons I stated above; kingship and monarchy would be utterly abolished, and in their place aristocracy would begin to grow. For the commons, as if bound to pay at once their debt of gratitude to the abolishers of monarchy, would make them their leaders and entrust their destinies to them. At first these chiefs gladly assumed this charge and regarded nothing as of greater importance than the common interest, administering the private and public affairs of the people with paternal solicitude. But here again when children inherited this position of authority from their fathers, having no experience of misfortune and none at all of civil equality and liberty of speech, and having been brought up from the cradle amid the evidences of the power and high position of their fathers, they abandoned themselves some to greed of gain and unscrupulous money-making, others to indulgence in wine and the convivial excess which accompanies it, and others again to the violation of women and the rape of boys; and thus converting the aristocracy into an oligarchy aroused in the people feelings similar to those of which I just spoke, and in consequence met with the same disastrous end as the tyrant.

Next, when they have either killed or banished the oligarchs, they no longer venture to set a king over them, as they still remember with terror the injustice they suffered from the former ones, nor can they entrust the government with confidence to a select few, with the evidence before them of their recent error in doing so. Thus the only hope still surviving unimpaired is in themselves, and to this they resort, making the state a democracy instead of an oligarchy and assuming the responsibility for the conduct of affairs. Then as long as some of those survive who experienced the evils of oligarchical dominion, they are well pleased with the present form of government, and set a high value on equality and freedom of speech.

But when a new generation arises and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become so accustomed to freedom and equality that they no longer value them, and begin to aim at pre-eminence; and it is chiefly those of ample fortune who fall into this error. So when they begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way. And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence. For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from the houses of office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.”

Where, I wonder are we on this cycle?

Our civic institutions need repair, American civic spirit requires rejuvenation and a new emphasis on strengthening the ties that bind us and support a liberal, democratic, constitutional government under the rule of law. Neither candidate is likely to foster this kind of spirit and quite reasonably, we can expect that they will sharpen divisions among Americans for political advantage when it suits them to do so. It can be argued that America deserves better than this in 2016. It can also be argued, to paraphrase Mencken, that Americans will get what they deserve and get it good and hard.

Mark Safranski