A republic, if we can keep it
Earlier this week, as I lamented the state of America’s governance — that we have come to be ruled by a 60-member tea party coalition that, at most, comprises only about 14 percent of the House yet somehow overrules the rest of the House, the Senate and the White House — my husband referenced his Polish immigrant heritage and recalled a political maneuver that hastened the collapse of Polish republic. The first Polish republic, that is.
The story bears a striking resemblance to our current political nightmare-cum-reality.
The maneuver was called the Liberum Veto.
The liberum veto (Latin for “I freely forbid”) was a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm (legislature) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! (Polish: “I do not allow!”).
And its effect on the Polish republic was, no pun intended, no joke.
… with the rise of power held by Polish magnates, the unanimity principle was reinforced with the institution of the nobility’s right of liberum veto (Latin for “I freely forbid”). If the envoys were unable to reach a unanimous decision within six weeks (the time limit of a single session), deliberations were declared null and void. From the mid-17th century onward, any objection to a Sejm resolution — by either an envoy or a senator — automatically caused the rejection of other, previously approved resolutions. This was because all resolutions passed by a given session of the Sejm formed a whole resolution, and, as such, was published as the annual constitution of the Sejm, e.g., Anno Domini 1667. In the 16th century, no single person or small group dared to hold up proceedings, but, from the second half of the 17th century, the liberum veto was used to virtually paralyze the Sejm, and brought the Commonwealth to the brink of collapse.
Sound familiar? In much the same way, now, the GOP and its tea party faction can bring the government to a dead halt, paralyze its decision-making capability, and abrogate the will of a majority of either body of Congress — let alone the American people — with a threat to cause economic and political catastrophe. They just did it, and have made clear they will do it again at the first available opportunity. Like many of the various checks and balances in our own system of government, the liberum veto may have been beneficial at one point, as a means by which the minority — which stood to be disadvantaged by a resolution — could protect its rights. Some historians also suggest it also played a role in securing religious tolerance.
It was, from the start of Polish republic, an un-codified parliamentary device in the Polish republic’s political structure. The disruptive potential of the liberum veto was checked by an unspoken agreement that it would not be used to throw a spanner in the works and bring the government to a halt, much like our old understanding that congressional votes to raise the debt ceiling would be “clean” votes. The liberum veto become a weapon, as any member of either chamber of the republic’s legislative body could bring any proceeding or negotiations to a halt by shouting “Nie pozwalam!” (“I do not allow!”)
Anyone who’s ever sat through a coalition meeting where everything got done (or, rather, nothing got done) on the basis of consensus has some idea how this could have ended badly.
Anyone paying attention to the shenanigans going on in Washington D.C. over the past several weeks has some idea how this bodes ill for the stability of our republic.
The United States is beginning to resemble 17th century Poland. On 2nd August, if no deal is reached, the US government will reach its debt limit. It will not be allowed to borrow from financial markets still utterly enchanted by the opportunity to toss trillions its way. Social security cheques might not get mailed, federal workers might not get paid, maturing bonds could default. It would be an own goal of disastrous proportions. Financial markets regard US debt as the safest possible, the ultimate risk-free asset, the base line upon which all other bonds are priced. If the US threatens default, the reaction will be calamitous: the world economy will be battered. It would make Lehman Brothers and Greece look like momentary blips.
And yet, even though the Democratic president has agreed to cut previously sacrosanct spending programmes, even though bipartisan senators have forged a compromise solution, even though raising the debt limit should be a mere procedural matter, on Friday Republican leadership broke off talks on the debt ceiling. Newly elected Tea Party House members—idealistic, convinced of the intrinsic perfidy of their own government, hating any tax increase—are willing to risk disaster for their country and the world economy. It is so unnecessary, so useless, so stupid.
In the 1600s, the Polish Lithuanian state was a behemoth in eastern Europe, rich and powerful, feared from Stockholm to Moscow. One hundred years later, it ceased to exist, devoured by its neighbours. Perhaps the central cause of its decline was the liberum veto. Merely by standing up in parliament and shouting “I will not allow,” a single nobleman could nullify any legislation passed by the house. In the 17th century the liberum veto was used sparingly. By the 18th century it was commonplace. With its government crippled by the requirement of unanimity, and unable to respond effectively to changing circumstances, Poland ceased to exist in 1793, its territory divided between Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire.
The republic, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was established around the end of 1568. It’s erroneously believed that the liberum veto didn’t exist until 1652. But the principle of unanimity, evolved from previous forms of governance among nobility, was part of the republic’s governance from the beginning, and things ran smoothly. It wasn’t until 1652 that the liberum became a problem.
Previously, liberum veto was only used to stop individual bills. However, in 1652, the liberum veto was used to nullify an entire legislative session. It was the first time, but not the last. The practice spiraled out of control, and ultimately paralyzed the legislature’s decision-making capacity — 48 out of 55 legislative sessions held after 1652 ended without making any decisions. That practice began in 1669, and in 1688 the legislature was dissolved before its proceedings even began. The Polish republic finally abolished the liberum veto in its Constitution of May 1791. By then, as we’ll see, the damage was already done.
Neighboring countries like Russia, Austria and Prussia used liberum veto to disrupt the Polish political process, as a weakened central government left the Polish Republic unable to defend itself against foreign threats. In 1772, Russia and Austria invaded a Poland too weakened by its own internal political paralysis to resist. The result was the First Partition of Poland, in which the Polish republic lost 30% of its territory and 1/3 of its population of 4 million. In theSecond Partition of Poland, in 1793, Russia helped itself to so much Polish territory that the only 1/3 of the 1772 population remained, and Poland retained just under 30% of its original territory. The Third Partition of Poland, in 1795, saw what remained of Poland swallowed up by Russia, Austria and Prussia.
It’s sometimes mistakenly said that “Poland didn’t exist” or appear on the world map until shortly after the beginning of the 20th century. But, Poland’s history began with the establishment of its first ruling dynasty, which was established around 960. That history stretched for more than 800 years, until the end of the first Polish republic.
The first Polish republic was wiped off the world map, and would not reappear for more than 120 years, until the formation of the Second Polish Republic in 1918. It took less than a century from the formation of the Polish republic for the liberum veto to become a weapon used to paralyze its government, and less than 20 years for it to cripple the government from the inside out, and begin its decline. Less than a century after that, the Polish Republic was on its way to more than 120 years of oblivion. But the beginning of the end of the Polish republic was not foreign invasion, but the sabotage of its political process and the paralysis of its government, from within.
None of this is to say that our own republic risks foreign invasion or disappearance from the world map. At least, not in the literal sense. But we’ve just witness that the tea party faction of the GOP is truly willing to drive our republic to the brink of economic collapse, and how easily they can subvert our political process to very nearly accomplish that aim.
Not only that, but they’ve promised to do it again, and again, and again, until they get what they want. What theycannot achieve through persuasion or the political process, they will achieve by taking hostage our economy, our government and all of our fates.
It hardly matters to them that democracy isn’t supposed to work that way. For some of them, that may be fine becausedemocracy is precisely the problem. The sooner it’s out of way, and our republic with it, the sooner American can be what they want America to be. And that will likely be an America most of us would neither want nor recognize.
According to legend, after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” And Franklin replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Whether we can or will keep it remains to be seen. But, as with the Polish republic, the biggest threat to our republic comes not from without, but from within.
The question is: What will we do about it? And how long will we wait?
This post originally appeared at the Campaign for America’s Future.Terrance Heath blogs at the Campaign for America's Future and The Republic of T.