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Why I’m Politically Apathetic: Part 1

December 12, 2013

In 2008, I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in History.  Much of my coursework involved studying governments, wars, social trends and the effects of such things on the world.  These things captured my interest, and admittedly, still do.  Even today, I often find myself interested in the trends of our repetitive yet dynamic world.

How can one be interested, yet apathetic?  Is this not a contradiction?

Perhaps.

You see, the more I observe the US, the more I see Rome in it.  Honestly, I wish I didn’t.  As much as I admire the Romans in some respects, God forbid we resemble them.  They reached the height of glory in the world, much like Macedon, Babylon and Assyria before them.  The problem is they fell, and they fell much like any country does, by losing those very values which made them great.  You see, conservatism always gives way to liberalism in a society.  Conservatives tend to think that returning to the ways of old will preserve society, while liberals tend to favor change as the way to greatness.

In any great nation or empire, there are certain values, though potentially unjust, which make them great.  In Rome, it was farming.  The height of the Roman experience was to be a farmer.  Those of you who have seen the film Gladiator with Russel Crowe as the Roman general Maximus, will possibly remember Maximus’ desire to finish his conquest of Germania in order to return home to his farm.  The greatest honor of the Romans was to be a landowning farmer.  Maximus represents the ancient values of Rome.  He embodies the Roman spirit, which deifies the Roman state and the conquest of foreign lands for her glory.  For this very reason, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (quite ironically) chooses him to restore the Roman Republic.

Cincinnatus chosen as dictator. Fresco, 1655-1658. Wikimedia Commons

Maximus is a picture of the famed Roman dictator Cincinnatus, and represents all that is old and good.  Cincinnatus was a farmer during the Roman Republic, a government which came into existence by overthrowing the Roman Monarchy in 509 BC.  Romans were the people who “hated the name of king” and prided themselves in being free of them.  In times of great crisis, the Romans appointed a dictator to lead the country in war in order to defend the freedoms of the people of Rome.  Traditionally, the dictator had a term limit of about 6 months but that would change later on.  While in office, the dictator had absolute power without repercussions.  Even after he left office, he would not be held to account for any of it.  Cincinnatus was called upon to be dictator twice, once in 458 BC and the second time in 439 BC.  What made him legendary was that after the crisis ended, he still had time left as the dictator, which he was entitled to.  Rather than staying dictator and doing as he pleased (as dictators were accustomed to doing), he resigned his office immediately and returned to his farm.  Twice he had been granted immense power, and twice he gave it up of his own accord.  The people loved him for it.  This was the ideal Roman.

Society changes, and this we know well.  Conservatives will continue (for better or for worse) to hold onto the old ways, while liberals (for better or for worse) will attempt to exact change.  This repeats itself in every society as new ideas flood in.  Always has, always will… well sort of, but I’ll get to that later.  The problem with all of this is that while the conservatives try to preserve the past and the liberals try to improve upon or do away with the past, this debate is really an age-old facade.  The debate feels so real right now because there are issues we really care about on the line, things need to be done!!!  Right? Lets not get too emotional yet.

Our modus operandi is to put like-minded people into power.  If they believe the same things as me, they’ll make this a better place.  On the surface this appears to be a sound method for choosing politicians.  The thing we forget about politics is that it’s political.  Do you honestly think that because you elect someone with your values into office, they’re going to do what you want them to?

For arguments sake, lets say your elected official actually wants to make a difference in the world (some do).  Let’s also pretend that they really have pure motives and are there to improve the country, yada yada.  In order to accomplish anything in a political environment you need to work with others.  You need people to be on your side, to agree with you, to support you.  Unless you win them over via charisma or some sense of patriotism, most likely you’re going to have to pay for their allegiance.  You see this behavior in everything from the schoolyard to the presidency.  You scratch my back, I scratch yours.  Few people scratch someone’s back because they believe they’ve got an itch worth scratching.  Why?  Because we all have agendas—motives, hidden and unhidden, and often we have to serve someone else’s agenda in order for our own to be realized.

Naïvely, we expect our officials to represent us and our values without compromise, but without compromise they won’t get anything done.  If your official writes a bill in your favor, they’ve got to vote for someone else’s bill (whether you agree with it or not) in order to get theirs voted for.  Either you hold to your values and morals and accomplish nothing, or you make alliances and possibly accomplish much.  I used to disdain Henry Clay, an American statesman from the 1800s who did his best to keep the states from coming unglued amid the debate of slavery prior to the Civil War, because of his nickname “The Great Compromiser.”  I don’t like compromise, but at least Clay was openly known for it.  Clay isn’t the only great compromiser, the government is full of them.  They’re usually the most successful politicians.

George Washingotn Wikimedia Commons

Let’s go back to Cincinnatus.  He was the ideal Roman.  Was there an ideal American?  Yes.  America had it’s own farmer named George Washington.  He was unanimously elected to the presidency in 1788—that’s right, everyone agreed (unlike today) and he didn’t even run for office.  Not only was Washington elected for his ability to govern and a demonstrated dedication to the newly formed union of states, but also for his legendary reputation of integrity.  After deposing King George’s rule of the colonies, and in the wake of the failed constitution “The Articles of Confederacy,” legend has it that the American people were ready to put a different King George on the throne (but I don’t believe that ‘fact’ has been proven true).

Much like Cincinnatus, Washington held the presidency for two terms but refused a third, setting the two-term standard we uphold today.  Just in case you missed that, Washington actually walked away from the presidency when he could have stayed in power.  Moreover, Washington had no party.  Neither Democrat nor Republican or Whig can claim Washington as their own—in fact, Washington was against parties as he believed they were detrimental to the processes of government.  It was this integrity that defined him, and for which he was so loved and respected.

The common thread between Cincinnatus and Washington is their integrity.  It was their lack of manipulation for which they were most remembered.  Now fast forward from BC to near-AD, from the 1780s to the 2000s.  What changed in Rome and what has changed in the US?

Bust of Julius Caesar. Wikimedia Commons

In Rome we go from Cincinnatus, the ideal citizen and governor, to Julius Caesar—the people’s hero—who would be voted a perpetual (never-ending) dictatorship and attempt a coronation, which due to its unpopularity ultimately cost him his life.  He was murdered by the senate to keep him from becoming a monarch, but little good it did.  The Romans much like Americans, prided themselves in being known as the people who “hate the name of king.”  In a further twist of irony, they would go on to make Caesar’s nephew Augustus the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BC, destroying the Roman Republic they were so proud of.

As I look at American society, I see us heading the same direction.  We’re sawing the branch we’re sitting on.  The situation isn’t the same as Rome’s.  Caesar was openly buying supporters in the streets, giving away bread to the poor, giving all of his war spoils to his armies, and pursuing his political enemies across the Mediterranean sea in open warfare.  Our system is vicious, but it has a veneer of civilized concord about it that shocks people when someone doesn’t play by the rules.  Lets take the situation of the US embassy in Benghazi for instance.  I don’t know too much about it.  I’m not really sure who does to be honest.  That’s not the point.  The point is that it’s merely political leverage to be exploited. Whether the alleged abuses are true or not, someone is going to use that to manipulate things to serve their agenda.  The same goes with 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

What point am I trying to make with all this history?  The point is that political systems go down the toilet, fittingly by the time they begin their death spiral it’s the only appropriate place for them.  No matter how noble their beginnings, the systems of this world will screw us.  Much like the Roman mob, being bought off with bread, our shrewdest governors will turn the tables on us and instead of pandering to us, we will eventually pander to them.  Your ideas of revolution, of social change, the occupy movement, the Tea Party, the NAACP, the KKK, the gay rights movement, the institutional church, whatever your social change/preservation group of choice is, they’re all primed and ready for manipulation and exploitation no matter how noble their origins.  Whenever you get people loyal to a ’cause,’ particularly one they have personal ties to, they’ll often remain loyal to it and follow it somewhat blindly.  Why?  Because it gets tied into their identity.

It’s that very thing of identity that is exploited by politicians.  When you slap that sticker on your bumper, you’ve identified yourself with something, and are now responsible to defend your allegiance to it.  It’s kind of like the herd mentality of cattle.  They don’t have a clue what’s going on, but they stick together.  Meanwhile there’s a herdsman with a stick deliberately driving them to the slaughter-house to suit his own ends.

Cato the Younger by Jean-Baptiste Roman and François Rude, 1840. Wikimedia Commons

Part of the problem is that we don’t elect the Cincinnatus’s and the Washington’s of our day.  Rather, we go after people who look and think like us.  When was the last time you saw someone compelled by the people to lead them?  Most of the people I would trust to lead the country are smart enough to stay out of politics.  Rome had Cato the Younger, who had an immaculate political reputation and was known for his transparency. Among his enemies was Caesar.  When Cato’s political attempts to stop Caesar from gaining absolute power in Rome failed, he fled with Caesar’s other opponents to Greece to make a final stand.  At their defeat, Cato took his own life rather than live under Caesar’s rule.  I want to suggest that we will see our own Cato the Younger’s, who will stand up to the manipulators of our day.  These Cato’s, uncompromising and respected for it, will be pursued most viciously by their opponents and likely ruined. Why?  Because the political machine runs on manipulation, and there will always be people who will stop at nothing to gain power.

Whether or not we agree with the Cincinnatus’s, the Cato’s or the Washington’s completely, we would do good to elect and defend them.  I would much rather see someone who lives by ideals or their conscience, who won’t be bought, leading a nation than someone who gives me what I want.  We need leaders, exemplary citizens, not politicians.

Unfortunately, I know the system well enough to know that these people, should they stick their neck out too far will be devoured.  This is incredibly cynical, but even if we should get someone like that in power, there’s always someone under them waiting for the opportune time to exploit the mob.  From what I can tell, moral leadership tends to stay in place for about a generation.

If only finding good leadership would solve our dilemma.  Leadership plays its role in the cancer, but it takes more than poor leadership to sink a nation.  Poor leaders are merely symptoms of the disease.  The disease is in the heart of the people.  In the way politicians are bought because they have a price, voters are also bought because they have a price.  Leaders manipulate us because they know how to feed us what we want.  Just as Caesar was able to buy the love of his army with the spoils of war, so will our leaders continue to buy us.  When people decide that integrity of leadership is of higher value than their stomachs, society will change.

Leadership is a litmus test of society, an indicator of its overall health.  When a people chooses and follows leaders without integrity, it shows the values of the people.  The Senate easily slew Caesar, the very embodiment of the Roman Republic’s demise.  You might consider this a major victory of Roman values over political manipulation.  History tells us differently though.  The people didn’t wake up after Caesar’s death.  Rather, the people turned him in to a sort of martyr.  Furthermore, the Romans would sell out their beloved Republic in order to make Augustus emperor shortly afterward.  Honest men like Cato the Younger had no place in a world like this, which is why he took his life at Caesars victory in Utica.  Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience writes,

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.

Thoreau, like Cato, was a man of his word.  He actually went to prison because he refused to pay taxes he considered unjust, though he had the means to pay them.  It’s men who will stand by their conscience, for right or for wrong, who fear neither death nor imprisonment who will change the world around them.  Like Thoreau and Cato, standing alone does little in the grand scheme of things if it doesn’t spark many more to do the same.

Unfortunately, such men are few and far between.  Even worse, when reality sinks in that their countrymen are more concerned with comfort and preservation than they are with integrity and justice, these men tend to go the way of Cato and remove themselves from the equation.  However, unlike Cato, I don’t intent to slice open my stomach to keep from living in an imperfect society.  The system is screwing us and I know there’s nothing I can do to stop it.  My vote, phone calls to my representatives, marches and protests are only slowing the inevitable.  Why?  Because the cycle repeats.

Romans kill kings, proudly form a republic.  Politicians rise and manipulate the masses, who sell their values for gain.  Cunning individuals rise to the top, make themselves king.  Colonists dislike British rule, revolt and form a republic.  Politicians rise and manipulate the masses, who sell their values for gain.  Cunning individuals rise to the top, make themselves… well, we’re not there yet.

It’s a horrible cycle.

The system is spiraling slowly down the toilet, a bowl its been in since its inception.  We didn’t know it, because it felt like freedom at the time.  The government was always in the toilet, whether it felt like it or not.  The lie we’ve believed is that there was a time when the government was good, when it was our friend, when we could trust it.  Although, to blame it all on the system itself is a bit unfair in my opinion, since it is inanimate.  Again, the disease is in the heart of the people.  Just about every system of government seems good on paper until you introduce the human element into it.  It’s the pattern of history.  Treating the symptoms, i.e. government reform, replacement of leadership, etc. will not bring about lasting change.  Conservatives and liberals alike fight a battle for nothing, a mere vapor.

To conclude this monstrosity of a post, the first reason I’m politically apathetic is because I’ve written off the political system.  I don’t believe in it, I don’t believe it can deliver what it promises, and I don’t believe it can be redeemed.  Even if it could be redeemed it would still have the wrench in its gears better known as the human race impeding its progress.  It never was what it hoped to be, and it never will be.  This is where I leave you: We don’t need change and reform, we need something new, something untainted by the wiles of humans.  We need a new system and a new people.

The good news is there’s hope.

I’ll write about that in part 2.

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