Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Appian road to autocracy

For Christmas, my wife bought me an excellent new history of ancient Rome, SPQR by Mary Beard, which has proved the best kind of present -- something I never would have bought myself that I'm enjoying immensely. It has the twin virtues of constantly acknowledging uncertainty and ambiguity while articulating a few memorable interpretive themes.

One of these should bring any American living in this moment up short. Previewing her treatment of a century of civil war leading to the end of the Republic, Beard writes:
Looking back over the period, Roman historians regretted the gradual destruction of peaceful politics. Violence was increasingly taken for granted as a political tool. Traditional restraints and conventions broke down, one by one, until swords, clubs and rioting more or less replaced the ballot box. At the same time, to follow Sallust, a very few individuals of enormous power, wealth and military backing came to dominate the state -- until Julies Caesar was officially made 'dictator for life' and then within weeks was assassinated in the name of liberty. When the story is stripped down to its barest and brutal essentials, it consists of a series of key moments and conflicts that led to the dissolution of the free state, a sequence of tipping points that marked the stages in the progressive degeneration of the political process, and a succession of atrocities that lingered in the Roman imagination for centuries (p. 216).
A distant mirror that's not so distant. The Roman republic distributed power through an elaborate system of checks and balances that incorporated many fosslized old customs. At the same time it proved quite adaptive for two or three centuries, including the one in which civil order and distributed power broke down. Adaptations include eradicating the political privilege of patricians and expanding the circle of citizenship progressively wider. But ultimately rapid change  - enormous influx of wealth and slaves, generals with experience commanding huge armies -- swamped the Republic's ability to create policy by consensus without violence.

The decay of our own political institutions is obvious. Looking at the moment we're in, having just elected a lifelong fraudster turned authoritarian demagogue, who's put in a cabinet of plutocrats, racists and cranks, I see a few long-term forces converging: 1) a globalized economy pressuring employment and wages. This could have been coped with, but we failed. 2) The eternal tidal pull of elites' unflagging efforts to subvert restraints on their ability to maximize their advantages and pass them on to their children. Francis Fukuyama traces the corrosive force of this never-ending pressure through several societies in The Origins of Political Order. 3) Our archaic constitution, which saddles us with nonrepresentative democracy, and renders its own amendment too difficult. 4) Our foundational racism, which has always limited and reversed attempts to distribute wealth and opportunity (education, basic security, lead-free water, etc.) more equitably.

The question is whether our descent into this kakocracy is cyclical (temporary) or permanent. About a century ago -- that is, last February -- Obama, the eternal optimist, expressed his faith that it's temporary, one more imbalance that U.S. democracy will prove capable of self-correcting:
My point is not that politicians are worse, it's not that issues are tougher, and so it's important for us to understand that the situation we find ourselves in today is not somehow unique or hopeless. We've always gone through periods when our democracy seems stuck, and when that happens we have to find a new way of doing business. We're in one of those moments. We've got to build a better politics, One that's less of a spectacle and more of a battle of that understands the success of the American experiment rests on our willingness to engage all our citizens in this work.
When I first read those words, I was a lot more confident that we would find our way, as Obama suggested, than I am now. I suspect the same is true for Obama, who seems to have consistently underestimated the malevolence of forces arrayed against him, and the U.S., and peace and freedom throughout the world.

On election night, I followed the results on the New York Times Upshot's app, which calculated odds for each candidate in real time. Clinton's fell steadily from 85% to 5%. When Trump crossed to 55%, I went into the bathroom and threw up my dinner.Since then it feels as if my life before that point has floated off into a kind of lost age of innocence, where we all assumed (check that -- where I assumed) that the United States would continue as a democracy, that at any given time some conditions of life would get better and some would worsen (crime in one generation, say, and income inequality in another), but we would maintain a basic capacity for collective problem solving, along with personal liberty and basic security.

I realize that these conditions did not obtain for millions of Americans, and for hundreds of millions or billions of people worldwide, but the cocoon of the relatively privileged majority of Americans felt safe.

Maybe it's fair that it wasn't. For our sins, Trump.

Of course, the jury's still out. Maybe Obama will prove right. Maybe Trump will provide a needed and manageable shock, discrediting the corrupted and now functionally fascist Republican party enough to force it to change. I wouldn't count on it. But we've got to work for it -- to defend our liberties, and do what we can to strengthen institutions meant to protect our liberty and self-governance -- what's left of electoral accountability, our judiciary, state and local government, universities and research nonprofits and media that will keep putting facts before us, businesses that have absorbed an ethos that you reach out to all potential customers and seek to attract and foster talent from all quarters, even a military with some recent experience of the ill effects of abrogating its own best norms.

It's going to be a rough ride. Happy New Year.


  1. This is very interesting, disturbing. I hope Obama is right.
    It is impossible to know what to expect now. Hopefully the different Resist efforts can help a little and more people will pay more attention.
    Happy New Year.

  2. Interesting article by Antos and Capretta in Health Affairs. They advocate that all subsidies stay in place for at least a year, and that risk corridors and reinsurance actually be increased.
    We will see if they prevail over the Social Darwinists who (let's not forget) were willing to shut down the government and risk a financial panic over the ACA several years ago.