Now is a good time to pray for America. I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now. In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals. Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism. In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.
Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended). The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine. Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner. But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state. And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war. If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism.
A brief review of history: in 602, the Roman army deposed the emperor and put a new usurper on the throne, leading to increased interventions by the Persian Shah into Syria and Mesopotamia. Responding to a serious revolt in 608, a Roman general stripped Syria of troops to counterattack in Egypt, because Romans would always rather fight Romans than outsiders. As it turned out, the revolt was successful by 610, but the war with the Persians lasted two decades longer. Undefended Syria opened the door for the Persian army to invade Egypt and western Anatolia (modern Turkey), even besieging the capital city of Constantinople itself. This was the first time an army from Persia had entered either region in most of a millennium! Although Romans eventually won the war with Persia, their exhausted military could not prevent the loss of Egypt and Syria to the conquering Arab Muslims in the 630s and 640s.
By the year 1000, things had recovered in the Byzantine Empire, and it was regaining land in northern Syria which it had lost three and a half centuries earlier. Increasing raids of Turkic nomads into eastern Anatolia caused trouble, but the Byzantine army had withstood earlier steppe nomad attacks and settled the borders. Such raids did not threaten the existence of the empire, or even the stability of its heartland. But when an emperor personally led a campaign against an encroaching Turkish army in 1071, he made the mistake of appointing a political rival with imperial ambitions as his rear-guard. This rival ignored orders, withdrew his troops from battle, and raced back to the capital with the news of the emperor’s fall. The rival was, of course, crowned as the new emperor. But there was a problem: the old emperor wasn’t dead, only captured, and he was released by the shrewd Turkish sultan, leading to a fierce civil war, because Byzantines would rather fight Byzantines than outsiders. Within ten years, Turkic nomads had settled across the length and breadth of the Anatolian plateau, most of which was permanently lost to the Byzantine Empire.
Things recovered a bit by 1100, and after some turbulence with Crusaders, two powerful emperors seemed to stabilize the empire and navigate the increasing hazards of diplomacy. In the 1320s, the twenty-something grandson of the aging Byzantine emperor grew impatient for his chance to reign, and started a civil war, eventually deposing his grandfather. When this emperor died in 1341, his nine-year-old son and heir needed a regent, which sparked a civil war between the queen mother and the minister of state. This war continued until the latter’s final defeat in 1354. In the course of this conflict, the Serbs annexed half of the Byzantine Empire’s territory, and both sides relied upon Western European and Turkish allies, who carved up the rest of the empire’s territory among themselves. When the son of the dead emperor, now in his early twenties, secured undisputed sovereignty, he ruled very little of an empire, because Byzantines preferred to fight Byzantines. The Ottoman Turks who snuffed out the Byzantine Empire in 1453 merely completed a process begun at the invitation of one Greek faction.
There were of course other causes and considerations in each of these cases, but in every case two sides preferred to fight with each other even as the system over which they were allegedly fighting was collapsing around them. Both sides valued winning the internal contest above preserving the state over which they were fighting. And, although we fortunately do not live in an imperial system, we now hear some voices advocating partisan victory over preservation of the American system. Some Americans seem to prefer fighting Americans rather than outsiders.
This is not a phenomenon found only within one political party; it is found across America’s political spectrum. When many Republican leaders contend that the alleged Russian tampering with US elections need not even be investigated, they are defending their partisan interests, since Republicans won not only the presidency but also both houses of Congress. There is pungent irony in the candidate who worked most assiduously to undermine faith in the American election process before November 8 now proclaiming its unquestionable inviolability. Yet what may have helped them in this case may be used against them in the future, and in the meantime, failure to investigate and respond appropriately merely invites future greater interventions by foreign powers and private interests. The integrity of the election process needs to be defended by rigorous investigation into credibly suspected compromises, and by taking steps in the future to improve safeguards, so that this might not be repeated.
Yet some Democrats’ calls to nullify the election results on the basis of the alleged hacking also undercut the democratic system. While this would serve Democratic partisan interests, at least reopening the question who will be the next president, they would invalidate a successfully completed election process. People voted, and no one (yet) suggests that the votes cast were in any way compromised by hacking. While the US government does need to investigate and respond to allegations of election hacking, nullifying election results without evidence of fraudulent votes cast amounts to scrapping democracy because it did not give the answer you wanted. If this were to happen, in the future any US president could nullify election results whenever the incumbent party was voted out of office. That is incompatible with democracy, and would severely undercut accountability to the people.
Similarly, the idea that electors need not vote in accordance with the popular elections of their particular states has received a dangerous amount of traction, both by anti-Trump Republicans before the Republican National Convention and now by Democrats in the lead-up to the electoral college vote on December 19. The electoral college vote has been a formality in past elections, and it should remain so. The system is not perfect, but it worked this time as it has in the past, whether we like the result or not. That Clinton “won” the popular vote is not a valid argument for faithless electors; all that means is that she obtained a supermajority in certain known blue states and did surprisingly well in certain red states. But the electors do not represent the whole US population; they represent only the voting public of their individual states. Can you imagine the chaos that would result if electors voted for whomever they wished, without regard for who received the most votes from their state? The voting public would then have essentially no say in who their next president would be. The electors would need to campaign rather than the presidential candidates, and each of their characters, values, and priorities would be scrutinized, in order to attempt to predict who they would vote for. While that might hurt Trump’s position this time around, it would also take away any significant meaning to presidential elections. Presidents would have no accountability to the American public, only to their parties, which would then be real factions.
Not all partisanship need be factionalism. Having multiple political parties has certain advantages over a single-party system. A single-party system tends to perpetuate a single set of ideas and strategies, and up-and-coming leaders conform to the existing leadership in order to be promoted through the ranks. By the time these younger leaders reach the top themselves, in most cases they have become so accustomed to the party-favored lines of thought that they no longer consider other possibilities. An opposition party can suggest alternatives to what has become an overly narrow party orthodoxy, and therefore open up productive lines of exploration. But when “winning” for one’s party becomes more important than the good of the whole country, partisanship has slipped into factionalism. And, as in the case of the Byzantine Empire, factionalism invites destruction of the system as a whole.
The American system is not perfect, it is not divinely inspired, and fortunately not everyone is succumbing to this factionalism. Some Republicans have called for a thorough investigation into the alleged Russian hacking of the election; some Democrats have acknowledged the election results and conceded defeat for this cycle. But for American democracy to continue, changes to this faulty system must be considered systematically. “Freeing the electors” from accountability to the voting public would merely abolish democracy, no matter who happened to “win” this particular round. Failing to investigate a foreign government’s hacking of our elections merely destroys the credibility of future elections, and invites increased intervention. Scrapping election results “this once” without overwhelming reason would set a dangerous precedent. Changing the rules for a particular case makes the rules either meaningless or ill-conceived. We might consider whether we wish to replace the electoral college with the direct democracy of a popular vote (or my preferred suggestion, apportioning electoral college votes in approximate proportion to each state’s popular vote, which would abolish “swing states” but still preserve the voting power of the smaller states). We might investigate and conclude that no foreign government was culpable. We might put in place protocols for evaluating future elections and the conditions which would lead to an election being nullified and re-held. These options would all preserve the system, rather than the self-serving but short-sighted proposals currently circulating among partisan advocates.
It takes honor and integrity not to break the game when one sees that one is losing. This election season knew surprisingly few limits in what came to be considered fair to challenge. For the sake of American democracy, we need to set limits to partisanship, to abandon factionalism. Now is a good time to pray for our country, and for all its leaders. May God bless America with repentance from pride, selfishness, and factionalism.