Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lessons from a Republic in Decline

As America's founding fathers were holed up in Philadelphia working on forging a more perfect union one of their greatest anxieties was the poor record of republics from enduring over time. In fact at that very time, what had been the largest republic in history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was in its death throes after coming into existence in 1569 just over two centuries earlier.

Most Americans know little about the Commonwealth and its collapse beyond the fact that it ceased to exist at the end of the 1700s -- if they know that.   That negligence can in large measure be explained by wise decisions the founding fathers made based on their observation of why earlier republics had failed.  Thus, they made a strong executive -- something the Commonwealth lacked, and created the checks and balances system.  In  addition they insured the basis for a strong military explicitly under civilian command, even if the army of the early American republic was miniscule.  Thanks to such forethought our republic has endured. Nonetheless as proud citizens of a republic it behooves us to pay attention to how republics go into decline, so that we avoid this fate.

I first started thinking about the relevance of the Commonwealth's decline during the 1990s when it struck me that the culture wars and increased partisanship seemed to reflect an alarming complacency about the resilience of the Republic based on the notion that we had the greatest military and were the only remaining superpower.  It reminded me all too much of the complacency that followed after the Commonwealth survived a series crises (including a civil war and foreign invasions) in the middle of the seventeenth century.  True, the situation in the Commonwealth was not quite the same.  It did not come through those wars unscathed -- it lost all its longstanding claim to territory east of the Dnipro River -- something that ought to have provoked some serious soul searching about the need for structural reforms to strengthen the executive.  Instead, the Commonwealth's nobles, who ran the Republic, retreated into Catholic orthodoxy and a cult of Polish noble exceptionalism, which included a blatant disregard for towns' and the enserfed peasants'  role in the importance of the Commonwealth's economy.  

Today thank goodness anxiety about the health of our Republic is a regular part of political discourse again, although sadly it has taken the excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration to bring that about.  But we are not out of the woods yet by any means.  Although I take great heart that neither a Clinton nor a Bush is on the ticket in this years presidential race, the selection of Ms. Palin as McCain's running mate has reminded me of another aspect of the Commonwealth's decline: the readiness of many nobles to put personal ambition above the national interest. 

Once again the analogy is far from exact.  At the heart of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth political difficulties lay two factors that have no clear parallels in our America.  The first is the constitutional requirement in the Commonwealth that the Sejm reach consensus for the decisions of that session to become legally binding, which gave birth to the so-called liberum veto, which allowed a single noble at the Sejm to block any decisions being reached even if they merely objected to one item.   The second was the curious combination of huge socio-economic differences and the rhetorical insistence on the equality of all nobles that made it possible for a magnate to lift up the status of impoverished nobles, who did not meet the official qualifications for full noble status, so that they could take part in a session of the Sejm by gifting them possession of a few villages in exchange for obstructing its proceedings by exercising the liberum veto.  

The Polish Enlightenment figure and ally of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, depicted just such an instance in one of his poems, parodying the impoverished noble's short-sightedness and his delight in suddenly being a player who could disrupt the Sejm because it was his constitutional privilege to be able to do so.  This poem recently came to mind as I thought about Sarah Palin's rapid political ascent.  To be sure, unlike the impoverished noble Niemcewicz described, Sarah Palin has become a political player through her own efforts.  Still, McCain's decision to invite her to join his ticket and her ready acceptance strike me as very much akin to the self-serving bargain between a magnate and a petty noble described above.  

It is painfully clear that despite McCain's chosen slogan "Country First" he picked Palin for short-term political advantages her feisty social conservatism would bring to his flagging campaign just as Polish Magnates used the liberum veto for their own self interest rather than that of the Cmmonwealth as a whole. Similarly, Palin's apparent immediate acceptance of the offer and confidence of her ability to fulfill the duties of the Vice-President reminds me of the petty noble Niemcewicz parodied.   Like him, there can be no denying that Palin meets the legal qualifications to be Vice-President.  Yet, it is also clear that she accepted the role as VP candidate because it appealed to her vanity as a rising star in the Republican party, rather than through a sober consideration of whether her present qualifications are a sufficient basis to take over that post, let alone the presidency, a fact now implicitly acknowledged by leading Conservative intellectuals.   

It is most probable that our Republic will survive should a McCain-Palin administration thanks in no small measure to our founding fathers' foresight, at least in name.  Perhaps conservatives are right that once seasoned Palin will be a competent leader.  Yet, our republic,  in its current constitutional form, is now over 200 years old.   As the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth illustrates proud as such an achievement may seem it is a dicey position for a Republic to be in.  Our success makes it easy to think republic will be here for eternity, and at the same time our connection to the times which forged the our republic is so tenuous that we no longer necessarily appreciate the priorities and anxieties that caused our founding fathers to think as they did.    


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