Posts tagged ‘Roman Republic’

Republicans & Democrats Applauded When Their Guy (Bush and Obama) Grabbed for More Presidential Power; Now, They Are Terrified to Give it to Trump

I had this argument the other day with my mother-in-law -- you can't allow a President more power just because he is "your guy" and you trust him.  No matter how well you think that person will use the power (and I trust no one), you are setting a precedent for the next guy whom you may very well not like.   I wrote this way back in 2005:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

For years I have asked liberals -- who have cheered President Obama's power grabs as righteous on the basis that "Congress won't don anything, so Obama has to" -- how comfortable they will we with a President Lindsey Graham using the same powers.

I was frequently dismissed, but not any more -- as folks on the Left begin to wake up and imagine President Trump using the same powers wielded by Obama.  To this end, the New York Times has a good article on Obama's drone war and the precedent set for the next President:

President Bush started the drone wars, but Mr. Obama vastly expanded them. Almost entirely on his watch, United States strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, possibly 1,000 of them civilians. The president approved strikes in places far from combat zones. He authorized the C.I.A. to carry out “signature strikes” aimed at people whose identities the agency did not know but whose activities supposedly suggested militancy. He approved the deliberate killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The president also oversaw an aggressive effort to control the public narrative about drone strikes. Even as senior officials selectively disclosed information to the news media, his administration resisted Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, arguing that national security would be harmed if the government confirmed drone strikes were taking place.

The administration also argued in court that federal judges lacked the authority to say whether drone strikes were lawful. It refused to release the evidence that it claimed made Mr. Awlaki a lawful target. In lieu of information, the administration offered assurances that the president and his aides were deeply moral people who agonized over authorizing lethal force.

That last line is perhaps the most dangerous single argument in all of democracy, that it is somehow OK to give an individual enormous extra-Constitutional powers because you trust that individual.  Only now, at the end, do they understand:

But as this election season has underscored, powers this far-reaching should not rest solely on the character of the president and his advisers. In a democracy, the ability to use lethal force must be subject to clear and narrow limits, and the public must be able to evaluate whether those limits are being respected.

When discussing Trump, I see a lot of writers referring to 20th century precedents of populist autocrats.  But if you want to be worried about American democracy, a better example is perhaps the Roman Republic.  The Republic was not killed by one man, even Julius Caesar.    The Republic fell through the slow accretion of autocratic precedents over nearly a hundred years, many of which were set by folks like Gracchus (who seems to have been a well-intentioned reformer) and Sula (who was a hero in Rome).

Thinking of the Gracchi Brothers Today

It is with mixed emotions that I greet this day.  Frequent readers will know that I long for a system of much more open immigration.  I don't think that the US Government should be limiting who can and cannot seek work or live within the US borders (setting rules for citizenship and receipt of benefits are different matters).  So I would like to see many long-time immigrants legalized today (and in fact I likely have friends and acquaintances who will benefit, though it's always been a bit awkward to ask them about immigration status).

However, I would MUCH rather see a rational process implemented than these once a decade amnesties we seem to go in for instead.

I also worry that Obama is taking these actions for all the wrong reasons, seeking to add 5 million Democratic voters rather than trying to help 5 million people who are seeking prosperity.  The reason I suspect this is that he is also seeking higher minimum wages that will likely make it harder for these folks to find work, likely something he has promised to his union allies so they won't freak out.  I have always said that Republicans want immigrants to work but not vote and Democrats want immigrants to vote but not work.

But I am much more worried about the un-Constitutional process that is going to be followed.  Of course, this is not the only Executive power grab over the last two presidencies, but it is a big one and one of the first where the President has admitted he doesn't have the power but is going to do it anyway.

Around 133BC, Tiberius Gracchus was ticked off that the Roman Republic would not consider necessary land reform.  I am going to oversimplify here, but in their conquests the Romans had grabbed a lot of new territory and by law that land was supposed to be parceled in small sections to lots of individual land holders.  Instead, powerful men (many of whom were in the Senate) grabbed the lion's share of this land for themselves in huge estates.   Gracchus rightly saw this as unfair and a violation of law, but it was also a threat to the security of the nation, as independent landowners who bought their own weapons were the backbone of the Roman army.  The shift of agriculture to huge estates staffed with slaves was not only forcing a shift in the makeup of the army (one which would by the way contribute to the rise of despotic generals like Sulla and Caeser), but also was creating social problems by throwing mobs of unlanded poor on the cities, particularly Rome.

Anyway, the short version is that Tiberius Gracchus had good reason to think these reforms were important.  But traditionally they would have to be considered by the Senate first, and he was too impatient to wait that process out, and besides (probably rightly) feared the Senate would find a way to kill them.   He was so passionate about them that he violated the (unwritten) Roman Constitution by ignoring the Senate and setting new precedents for using his position as Tribune to pass the new laws.  It was absolutely the prototype for a well-intentioned bypassing of the Constitution.  I won't go into detail, but Tiberius was killed at the behest of some Senators, but his brother picked up his mantle 10 years later and did some similar things.  Which is why we talk of the Gracchi brothers.

In the near term, the results were some partial successes with land reform.  However, in the long-term, their actions really got the ball rolling on what is called the Roman Revolution.  A hundred years later, the Republic would be gone, replaced with a dictatorship.  Step by step, the precedents often set initially with only the best intentions, were snatched up and used by demagogues to cement their own power.  In later years, what gave emperors their authority was a package of powers granted to them.  One of the most important was "tribunition" power.  In essence, the tribunition power included many of the powers first exercised aggresively by the Gracchi brothers.  More than just starting the ball rolling on the Revolution, they pioneered the use of powers that were to be the core of future emperors' authority.