I’ve been reading more Cicero, and it’s both inspiring and kind of sad. His finest orations are the so-called Philippics, which aren’t about anybody named Philip, but are vicious attacks on Mark Antony, who was defying the Senate and contending for power in the period immediately after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Cicero wasn’t a naturally courageous man, and he ran a grave risk by giving these speeches, but he did it because he considered Antony a deadly threat to the Republic.
And he paid the ultimate price. When Mark Antony made his famous deal with Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, to divide the Roman world between them, one of the terms of their bargain was permission for Antony to have Cicero killed, which was promptly done. That’s not, however, what saddens me in this connection. The Romans felt that a heroic – at least a brave – death was a key element of a life well lived, and Cicero made a more dignified exit from the material plane than we might’ve expected from his prior behavior. He was an old dude, anyway.
No, what I find depressing is that if Cicero was going to lose his life by speaking out, he ought to have been speaking the truth – and he wasn’t. He was sincere, but he totally misjudged what the problem was. He solely focused on Antony’s personal faults and crimes which, according to Cicero, included such items as drunkenness, arrogance, lechery, forgery, violence, contempt for the Senate, ingratitude, corruption of the youth, massive theft of property, and marrying the daughter of a man who stuttered. Because he found Antony’s qualities so repulsive, and so unworthy of the Republic, Cicero felt compelled to single them out for special condemnation.
And yet, for us moderns, two thousand years later, surveying the Roman scene with 20/20 hindsight, this seems a very superficial view. Mark Antony may have been crude and oversexed, but he seems fundamentally no worse than the other demagogic politicians and warlords vying for supremacy at that time. Cicero seems never to have understood that the fundamental issue wasn’t the bad character of this or that would-be despot, but the rottenness of the Republic itself – the very institution he was striving so hard to preserve – which brought louts like Antony to the fore.
In appearance, the Roman Republic of Cicero’s day was the same as it had been from time immemorial. However, the underlying social reality had shifted drastically over the centuries. A class of property-owning small farmers balanced the power of the aristocracy in earlier epochs. But the Republic’s wars of conquest mainly enriched the upper classes, who established enormous slave-run agricultural plantations that put the small farmers out of business. Young men with no prospects had no choice but to sign on with one of the military chieftains, whose contentions might upset existing property relationships and provide prospects for loot.
If Cicero had really confronted the predicament facing his country, he wouldn’t have wasted his words deploring the wine-bibbling habits of a particular general, he’d have proposed land reforms that would’ve given lower-class Romans a chance to live as law-abiding smallholders, rather than a propertyless rabble. Of course, this would’ve required him to challenge the wealthy patricians who were his supporters and buddies, and there’s no way he’d ever have done that.
I think liberals today are making the same sort of mistake when they concentrate so exclusively on the – admittedly impressive – flaws of Trump. I’ve tended to do that myself. He’s a big fat target. But bad as he is, our so-called President isn’t the primary reason to fear for our democracy. Last week, I noted that wealth in our society has been concentrating in the hands of a small class of multi-billionaires. I also observed that the US Supreme Court has seen fit to render this class – along with the corporate sector of our economy – legally free to secretly employ their resources as they see fit to influence elections and otherwise distort the political process. That, folks, is the real threat to our system, and it ain’t Trump’s fault.
Some critics maintain that money in politics isn’t that important – for example, here and here – but that’s certainly not the prevailing view. Statistics show that the big spenders win 80 to 90 percent of US elections. Trump prevailed despite being outspent, but the last Presidential candidate to do this before him was Jimmy Carter in 1976. In all my fifty-plus years in politics, I never worked on a campaign that felt it had enough money, or that it couldn’t make good use of more. It’s true that some candidates might be unelectable no matter how much you spend on their behalf. And some probably are unbeatable, in a given election, no matter how much you spend against them. There are always exceptions to everything. But, in general, the immortal words of Louis XIV hold true: “the last piece of gold will win.”
I’ll say more next time on the intertwined topics of economic concentration and unfettered campaign spending. I wish liberals and centrists would spend less of their mental energy obsessing on Trump, and worry a bit more about our budding oligarchy and their ability to manipulate our democratic processes. Trump will be gone in a few years, but an entrenched ruling class can last for generations.
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