Purity and Proscription

As the Roman Republic was descending into chaos (before the emergence of empire, which Caesar naturally framed as the necessary salvation of the Republic), lists were posted in the Forum every day with the names of enemies of the state.

Obviously, the way to have a new list of bad guys every day is to make one up. And it doesn’t take many “generations” to become a purely political exercise — a convenient way to bump off that guy who was mean to you that one time, or the one who’s surely (surely!) up to no good.

I’m hardly the first person to point out the way our current politics rhyme with those of the late Republic, but it’s no less important to keep a weather eye on history as we go into what will surely be a tough six months.

Both politically and socially, our culture is really hooked on purity tests and demonstrations. This personalizes our politics, which makes them more volatile and dangerous.

The immediate risk probably isn’t so much a specific caesar as breaking the political fever so that any rebuilding isn’t premised on personal vendettas.

Sooner or later, there will be a new president. But a new presidency also means an enormous slate of new appointments, from the lowliest executive-branch offices to the Supreme Court bench.

And that’s where we’ll need to draw some careful lessons and distinctions: the spoils system is one thing, but full-on purging is another. Given how loose our language has become, it’s not at all difficult to imagine some people pushing for something like a “de-Nazification” of the executive branch. That might be the natural extension of the “all those on the other side are Nazis” line of thinking, but that crowd needs to have an answer for the calamity of de-Ba’athification before they start putting up lists of personae non gratae.

Once started, these sorts of cycles are very difficult to stop. Far better to see the danger beforehand and forbear the desire to inflict maximum punishment.