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Variations | Has been, is, and always will be

IN 1909, political scientist and journalist Henry Jones Ford wrote, “[O]ne continually hears the declaration that the direct primary will take power from the politicians and give it to the people. This is pure nonsense. Politics has been, is, and always will be carried on by politicians, just as art is carried on by artists, engineering by engineers, business by businessmen. All that the direct primary, or any other political reform, can do is to affect the character of the politicians by altering the conditions that govern political activity, thus determining its extent and quality. The direct primary may take advantage and opportunity from one set of politicians and confer them upon another set, but politicians there will always be so long as there is politics.”

It seems that since time immemorial, the result of implementing many if not most political reforms has been “very far from the reformers’ expectations,” to quote Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels, authors of the 2016 book, “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.”

In 1939, another politically inclined journalist, HJ Haskell, published “The New Deal in Old Rome,” which has an equally intriguing subtitle: “How Government in the Ancient World Tried to Deal with Modern Problems.” Haskell was the editor of the Kansas City Star from 1928 to 1952, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1934 and 1944.

Writing about the politics of ancient Rome reminded Haskell of a “successful politician, the Governor of a state, [who] remarked in conversation not long ago that he was ‘terrified’ over the outlook for democratic institutions in [the U.S.]. ‘In these days,’ he said, ‘we have to make promises that we know we can’t carry out. We have to promise the old people pensions that would bankrupt the state if we paid them. We have to promise higher salaries to the school-teachers, higher wages to the working people, higher prices to the farmers, bigger allotments of public funds from the federal government. I am ashamed of what I have done. But I wanted to win.’ ”

Elsewhere in his book, Haskell noted “unhappily,” that “abuse of power is never outmoded. As I write this paragraph I read of the fining of a Missouri mayor for using the labor of men on work relief in his private business.”

Haskell mentioned two types of politicians that are still with us (and most likely will be with us so long as politics is conducted by humans):

The “unoriginal” politico who spouts motherhood-apple-pie banalities but who has also “the subtlest and rarest of talents — the ability to embody in practical measures the vague aspirations, the impatient wishes and the insistent hopes of other men.”

The other politico is the passionate reformer who believes “life is organized on a purely rational basis and that men can be persuaded by argument to surrender selfish interests.”

A prime example of the first type was Augustus, the first and perhaps the greatest Roman emperor. For the second type, there was Tiberius Gracchus who was accused of aspiring to be a king and was clubbed to death by his fellow senators and other officials.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was another notable Roman politician. When he decided to run for public office, his younger brother Quintus supposedly wrote a letter to Marcus. It is now known as a “Handbook of Politics” which Haskell said “embodies principles and practices that are familiar to every politician in America today.”

According to Quintus, every voter is entitled to the satisfaction of being personally solicited for his vote. “One has great need,” he added, “of a flattering manner, which, wrong and discreditable though it may be in other walks of life, is indispensable in seeking office.” Moreover, a candidate for office “must be lavish in his promises to people who asked him for favors that he could grant if elected. ‘Human nature being what it is,’ said Quintus, ‘all men prefer a false promise to a flat refusal. At the worst the man to whom you have lied may be angry. That risk, if you make a promise, is uncertain and deferred, and it affects only a few. But if you refuse you are sure to offend many, and that at once.’ ”

Rival candidates, of course, could resort to bribing voters. When that happens, Quintus said, “contrive, if possible, to get some new scandal started against your rivals for crime or immorality or corruption, according to their characters.” Haskell said that “this last suggestion appealed to Marcus as quite practical. As his rival, Catiline, was resorting to bribery, Cicero came back at him in a speech in the Senate in which he charged him with murder, adultery, marriage with a daughter whom an adulterous mistress had borne him, attempted incest, and attempted massacre — in short, with every crime he could lay his sharp tongue to.” Cicero won the election.

In “The New Deal in Old Rome,” Haskell made the following observations that remain as true today as they were in ancient Rome:

“With the extreme paternalism of the government, the people had lost their old energy.”

“The effect of the edict was the direct opposite of what was intended.”

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