History Lessons


Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

In her recent speech at the Conference on World Affairs, Rachel Maddow cited James Madison's warning about the unitary executive, the propensity of an unchecked executive branch to lean toward war, whereas the legislature would be more likely to debate the issue before moving toward conflict.

Maddow's supposition, that the Bush administration's seeming incompetence, its torture memos, its rush to war, was by design -- Bush and Cheney's direct effort to shift power to the executive and, thereby, to shift the entire country to a more warlike stance -- does have historical precedence.

I'm not referring to Madison, though he did warn of this, or Jefferson, who raised prescient concern about undue influence, but earlier in history to the systems that Madison and Jefferson used as the inspiration for their grand experiment: The Roman Republic of Caesar's time and the Greek democracy of Solon.

This is not to say that George W. Bush is Julius Caesar or that any of his lawgivers (like the ones who approved that torture memo) are Solon. But there are interesting parallels to the way that Caesar and his contemporaries used war to further their wealth and political ambitions, as well as to the actions that Solon's contemporaries took to undermine codified law.

Need a better seat in the Roman Senate? Get yourself posted to Hispania (Spain). Need funds to run a campaign for consul (president) or junior consol (vice-president)? Go to war with Gaul (France).

Need to prove yourself in an ill-timed, ill-thought out adventure in Parthia (Syria, Iraq, Iran)? Be like Crassus and attack preemptively and get your army decimated in the process.

For Solon, the author of democracy? Have a law that your opponents don't like? Make it good for ten years after you leave office. Solon did that with laws we'd likely support (limiting unfair financial practices toward the poor...). Bush? Tax cuts for the rich. Which would have been fine with the corporate interests in Greece (known as oligarchs - that's where the word comes from), who made sure Solon's attempts at fairness wouldn't last by overthrowing his protégé, Pisistratus, leading to periods of instability broken only by the need for the people came together to fight a common enemy (interchangeable between Persia, the Peloponnesians, Philip of Macedonia...).

Alexander and his successors put a stop to that (for a while), after which, Rome reduced Greece to a province in their march to rule the world. But the struggles between the wide ideals of democracy and the narrow interests of oligarchy have never gone away. Indeed, it should be familiar to those who look askance at the hundreds of millions of dollars required to run a presidential campaign and are now (finally) questioning how the common interests of the people could have any meaning in such an environment...