[by Lynn C. Rees]
A favorite rule of thumb of mine is that politics is the division of power. The three most important questions I ask about politics tend to be:
- What is the division of power?
- What is the division of power?
- What is the division of power?
This can oversimplify, perhaps going for blacker black when grayer grey will do. The notion that politics is the division of power originates in a more cynical school of politics than Civics 101. It will come off more as darker dark than whiter white. Considered in isolation, it can come off as naive materialism, stubbornly and single-mindedly clinging to the assumption that the life of man is tragic, nihilistic, and trite, a farce of grunting conditioned responses driven solely by thirst for power and its fruits.
From a more clinical distance, politics as division of power is merely instrumental. By itself, it is neither black nor white, good nor evil. It merely is. As war is instrument, effector, and expression of politics all in one, juiced up an admixture of physical violence as persuasive spice, politics is an instrument, effector, and expression of culture. Without culture, politics lacks meaning. Without politics, culture is dead. Culture needs power to be more than dead letters. Politics needs culture to be more than twisting machinations, soap operas without end.
To consider politics without culture may be useful for analytic or presentation needs. But to divorce culture from politics and leave a wide gulf that exists more in imagination than substance is as dangerous and seductive as divorcing war from politics. In reality, all are merely expressions of the same human strivings, artificially shorn from one other for more comprehensible storytelling.
The particular rhythms of politics and culture, even though tightly interwoven, hit their own distinctive notes. The warp and weave of culture may hit higher, clearer tones. The twists and contortions of politics may strike a deeper, muddier pitch. Yet both are needed for a well-orchestrated score that marries a healthy bass with soaring melody.
The Constitution of the United States has a peculiar office from a contemporary institutional perspective. Due to the fateful meeting of the peculiar cultural inheritance of English-speaking North America and the curious political conditions of the 1780s, the United States government is led by an elected monarch. Republican themed governments established in the immediate wake of the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, most prominently in the newly independent nations that carved themselves from the corpse of the Portuguese and Spanish empires, adopted the same principle of an elected monarch, usually with indifferent to disastrous results. The office of president usually ended up being indistinguishable from the office of king or emperor, though the branding was different and the optics more current.
Outside of the Americas, today’s most common form of government arose from the perhaps even more highly contingent cultural and political circumstances of the fall of the Second Empire of the Buonapartes, the original for Marx’s historical tragedy repeated as farce. The precipitous fall of the Idiot Nephew left a vacuum. Republicans, some smelling of Jacobinism and Terror, clambered over antediluvian Bourbon and Orleanist pretenders in a race to where even fools feared to tread. Though retro-monarchists who thought Richelieu or Mazarin too modern and too moderate were probably in the majority during the following decade, the times conspired to deny them another go at absolutism under a sacred monarch.
The result was a system where the executive ended up divided between an elected figurehead with little constitutional or customary power and a legislative leader selected by a working majority who held most of the real power, one rooted in their ability to get laws through through the legislature. The French Third Republic ended up with a president who was head of state and a premier who was head of government. This created a partial separation of state and government. The government is dead, but, since the state endured, long live the government.
This separation was further accentuated by the remarkable frequency with which premiers and governments rose and fell under the Third Republic. It was possible for a more assertive president like Raymond Poincare to exercise more power than perhaps the ideal of the Third Republic would like. Remarkably, the whole thing endured the travail of World War I which saw the French Republic survive the rare pairing of assertive premier (Georges Clemenceau) with assertive president (Poincare) until the Third Republic was destroyed by that unfortunate sizable hole they left in the middle of their defenses. The Second Empire fell at Sedan so it’s odd the Third Republic let itself fall at…Sedan.
There are some hypothetically attractive features of a clean separation between state and government and their respective leaders. Joining the two as the U.S. Constitution does leads to a situation where you need a criminal conviction in order to fire an incompetent employee i.e. the President of the United States.
My cousin Thomas Riley Marshall, vice-president of the United States under Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed), was encouraged to oust the head of the ticket after that evil critter was crippled by a debilitating stroke. Cousin Tom anguished over the decision before deciding against it out of fear he’d establish some toxic precedent for kicking the People’s Choice™ out of office. Cousin Tom may go down in history as a hero of feminism, if heroes of feminism are in fact a thing, for electing the nation’s first de facto woman president through inaction. He may have left the worst U.S. president of the 2oth century intact as a diseased pustule that could still periodically burst and infect the republic.
I don’t judge Cousin Tom too harshly: he’s family, after all. He was an amiable chap and he legitimately fretted about ejecting evil from the oval office for perfectly understandable reasons. Within the cultural distinctiveness of the United States government and the peculiar trajectory of its political perturbations, he probably made the right call. A future where Thomas Woodrow Wilson (bones, crushed) wasn’t tossed out onto the street may have been the best of all possible futures. However, other nations, drawing on the traditions of the Third Republic and even that sunless nation of shopkeepers, have systems that let them fire the help without criminal trials, constitutional crises, or even attacks of angst or hand-wringing.
However, nations aren’t made by clever institutional counter-weights or finely tuned parchment walls. They’re not even made by blood and iron. Robin Pearson, voice of the History of Byzantium podcast, pointed out that constant imposition of iron to beget blood is expensive. A state that had to rely on continuous active application of violence, though violence is the primal core of the dividing of power, would quickly enervate itself into bankruptcy. The wise statesmen, and, usually, even the mediocre statesmen, strive to create the legitimacy that will bind people to state through cultural ties of love, fear, and, strongest of all, habit. Drip, drip, like Chinese water torture, habit will bind men stronger than the sword or the pen, though a bit of both violence and influence is a component of building habit.
In charting the byzantine machinations of Byzantine religious controversy, Pearson echoes a point raised by his podcast predecessor Mike Duncan of the History of Rome podcast: offended gods are a national security threat. If the sacred chickens are tossed overboard because they fail to peck an omen in a timely fashion, the gods will take it personally and personally take it out on Rome’s fortunes with her enemies. When pagan Roman Empire became Christian Byzantium and indulged in seemingly pointless byzantine hair splitting over how many inches an image had to rise above the medium it was emblazoned upon before it became an idol, it was a continuation of sacralized poultry divination by other means. In the immortal question posed by Bart Simpson to the Flanders boys, “Angry God or Happy God?” The rational statesmen usually opts for Happy God and ensures his sacred chicken have all the leeway they need to peck out the future and double-checks that his icons are safely two-dimensional so they aren’t accidentally mistaken for Golden Calves.
God in His heavens is not actually moved by such petty propitiations: His ways are higher than fumbling human appeasement. He knows how to do His own work. Trying to get on His good side by striving to do His will is still a sensible policy. Even debauched former choir boy Josef Stalin allowed carefully metered appeals to the old God of Mother Russia during the darkest days of Barbarossa. The most useful god, even for a godless atheist like Uncle Joe, was a god of habit. The tyranny of the GULAG is a toddler’s temper tantrum next to the more pervasive tyranny of habit, however constituted.
Culture is the art of the unspoken assumption. Statesmen who strive against the grain of culture, especially as manifested in habit, culture’s most concentrated form, are petting the cat backwards. They’re not likely to get the purring they’re expecting. Separation of the office of head of state from head of government and, the second being like unto it, the separation of the state from government appeal to me on the happy clean idea level. However, the two roles are married in American political culture. Trying to divide them would only produce an enraged feline.
If you can’t separate application logic from application presentation, the fusion of the two should be as effective as possible. The greatest president of my lifetime, Ronald Wilson Reagan, may his bones be unbroken, was an actor by trade. This was frequently ridiculed by the pompous commentariat of the day. Yet, those commentators make the same mistake those who mistake politics solely as a materialistic wrestling for goodies make. Reagan came to office better prepared to straddle the dual aspects of head of state and head of government than any other president of his half-century. He understood the importance of good theater in politics as a way of cultivating habit and reinforcing culture in a way that presidents like the dismal James Edward Carter, the dour peanut baron who preceded Reagan in office and who some still think was somehow smarter and thus superior to Reagan, do not.
Growing up, I knew what a President of the United States was: my president knew how to play the role. As he descended into the twilight that eventually ended his mortal experience, Reagan drifted away from the nuts and bolts of the role the head of government he never cared for. However, When it came to the role of head of state, acting as a focal point for the cultural habits of a nation, he never seriously dropped the ball. As a republican, I deplore anything smelling of one man rule, monarchial pretense, or the cult of the indispensable man of destiny. Yet, as an American, I am moved when the national liturgy is performed by a true professional. It’s been thirty years today since Reagan voiced national grief over the Challenger accident. Rarely in the course of my lifetime have the unifying ties of culture so transcended the day-to-day grind of the division of power. Politics paused the frenetic spinning of its hamster wheel. For a few brave minutes, we looked up from the surly sacred chickens pecking at our idols and felt the touch of God.