Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A reason to celebrate

(Reposted from Mischiefs of Faction)

Want a reason to celebrate this Independence Day? Try this: elections. Yes, elections can be annoying, and if you live in a swing state, you are undoubtedly already being hammered with mind-numbing attack ads, with Republicans claiming that everything that Democrats do is craven or evil and vice versa.

But what's the alternative? I've spent far too much of my leisure time in the last year listening to the History of Rome podcast and watching "Game of Thrones," and one thing those tales drive home is the challenge of succession. Many (perhaps most?) of the battles fought by soldiers of the Roman Empire were fought against other Roman soldiers, either putting town a rebellion or taking the throne from a usurper. Passing power along by bloodline can help -- at least it's some sort of system -- but it can create just as many problems when an heir proves incompetent or there are multiple legitimate claimants. One of the reasons for the successes of the Roman emperors of the 2nd century AD was that most of them did not have male children -- they were able to choose qualified successors and groom them for leadership. Marcus Aurelius, of course, did produce a male heir, and he turned out to be an insane Joaquin Phoenix, ending the empire's century of competence.

I find this important because the Roman Empire was pretty much the most advanced civilization the world had ever seen. It had sophisticated systems of currency and trade, an advanced legal system, a functional bureaucracy, not to mention its amazing military capabilities. But they were never able to resolve the problem of succession of power.

And yet this is something we take for granted today. Elections are fought fiercely, but they end. The results are rarely disputed, and basically never with violence. We do not fear for our lives if we pick the wrong presidential candidate, and we do not waste blood and treasure putting down rebellions and ousting usurpers.

No, we're not the only nation to figure this out, but it's nonetheless something to be proud of, especially since so many advanced societies before us failed on this point. So this Independence Day, let's celebrate by volunteering for a candidate, donating money to a campaign, or just watching an attack ad.

Happy Fourth.


andrew said...

"Elections are fought fiercely, but they end. The results are rarely disputed, and basically never with violence."

While this is true in recent American history, it is certainly not true of elections in general as a method of succession, nor is it an accurate statement of the U.S. situation until the 20th century, although Americans have indeed preferred to have their election violence before rather than after the results are announced, with just a very few handful of exceptions (there was a disputed regime issue in Mass. early on that led to violence, and there were a number of instances of post-election violence in border states during the Civil War and during Reconstruction after the Civil War).

"We do not fear for our lives if we pick the wrong presidential candidate,"

Of course, this has very little to do with the fact that we choose our leaders through elections. With divided government, there is no reason to thing that institutions such as Malaysia's rotating kingship couldn't work just as well.

"we do not waste blood and treasure putting down rebellions and ousting usurpers."

Well, there was Shay's Rebellion, and then there was a certain little rebellion put down by a fellow named Abraham Lincoln, and there was a century long Indian War, and there was a certain incident in Utah before it attained statehood, and there have been multiple Puerto Rican rights and American Indian Movement based political assassination attempts, and there was Waco. Tom Clancy (who was prescient in the same books in foreseeing a 9-11 type attack) certainly illustrated how something like that could play out here. But, it has been a long while since there has been a bona fide U.S. rebellion and the U.S. has never had the equivalent of Presidential anti-Pope a la a couple of the recent election result disputes in West Africa.

We owe a lot of the certainty of result and narrowness of the legal and political fights over who won to the electoral college. The electoral college system means the result is in question only when the outcome of the race in the marginal state is in question, even if the general election result is quite close, and generally limits the scope of a contested result to one or two states, rather than requiring a nationwide recount. Utah or D.C. can have a totally corrupt election and those states will never have a recount. And, the swing states are almost by definition those where no one political party is dominant which tend to have less room for overwhelming manipulation of all aspects of an election process which is administered mostly at a county level by a patchwork of partisan elected officials.

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