Election season is well underway in the United States with the midterm elections ending just days away. The United States has always been a country of sweeping emotions, whether of the brave spirits of the pilgrims, or of the freedom-loving cowboys of the West, or of college football fandom, or of the citizen entering the polling booth this November. With those sweeping emotions and the unavoidable propaganda of political campaigns, we tend to believe that if “our guy” wins, he or she will save the nation from either the possibility or reality of a trend of disappointing political events. No matter where on the political spectrum one resides, most agree the country is trending in a poor direction. Objective measures such as rising housing costs, food and gas prices, general inflation, and the prospect of involvement in foreign wars all confirm those negative sentiments about the state of America. “But,” we say, “if John Doe wins the governor race, or if Jane Doe wins the Senate race, we can turn it around.” Most of all, when 2024 arrives, we will all think, “If our guy wins the Presidency, all be will well.”
I do believe one set of values represented in a political race is better for the county, state, or nation; however, let us not deceive ourselves into believing one leader can change a nation of 300+ million people, especially in two, four, six, or even eight years. History teaches us that one leader cannot reverse the course of an empire. When the Roman Empire’s downward spiral had long been underway, it took no fewer than four successive emperors to reign in political interference of the Roman armies. Historian Edward Gibbon points out that it took 220 years for the “dangers inherent to a military government” to be suspended, referring to the Roman legions’ frequent usurpation of political power. Saving an empire is difficult.
The Tragic Case of Pertinax
Pertinax ascended to the Roman emperorship after the fall of the tyrannical Commodus as a savior for the empire. This tragic reformer displayed many of the ideals we expect of good leaders: a reluctance to accept power, frugality of the public funds, an abhorrence of wastefulness, a forgiving demeanor to his personal enemies and the memory of Commodus, a respect for justice, a virtue recognized widely throughout Rome, and a desire to instill discipline in the lax Roman legions. Gibbon writes of Pertinax’s mission:
“To heal, as far as it was possible, the wounds inflicted by the hand of tyranny, was the pleasing, but melancholy, task of Pertinax.”Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch.4
Pertinax quickly moved to reverse many of the evils created by Commodus, such as oppressive taxes which had reportedly doubled household expenditures. Instead, Pertinax restored a healthy treasury by economy and industry, which he considered the genuine sources of wealth. The virtues of Pertinax earned him great repute with the people of the Roman empire:
“Those who remembered the virtues of Marcus were happy to contemplate in their new emperor the features of that bright original; an flattered themselves that they should long enjoy the benign influence of his administration.”Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch.4
Unfortunately, the virtues of such a leader proved inexpedient politically, as servile members who resented their loss of private benefits from a corrupt government united against Pertinax. Two conspiracies were discovered and stamped out. Though such seditious actions justified death to its actors, the amiable Pertinax refused and chose the path of forgiveness. This only angered the already discontent Praetorian guard, the soldiers tasked with defending Rome itself, who then ended Pertinax’s noble reign of only 86 days.
This example of Pertinax highlights the unfortunate fate of one good leader stepping into a mire of corruption too deep to survive alone. The silver lining is that Pertinax was able to do more good for the Roman people in 86 days than any other leader before him. Nonetheless, in a government full of corrupt, favor-seeking, and duplicitous actors, one man is not enough.
Thus, while casting our votes this season, though we should seek another Pertinax, we cannot expect that one local politician, or senator, or governor, or even President can fight alone against a tide of evil.
The Near Term
What, then, can we do? First, we might assess what the root of the problem is. Is it that another Pertinax, even in our private stations, is so rare? Or simply that none of our modern day Pertinax-like citizens choose to run for office? In the first case, the solution is simple in words but difficult in action: to raise more virtuous people. In the second case, we must encourage those people of virtue, through our words, time, and treasures, to run for office. In our democratic republic of divided federal and state powers, we cannot naively think that a single arm of our government can be virtuous enough to affect change across the entire government. Hence, our modern government has a difficult task: we must fill our governments with virtue, and that can only be done with immense attention to each and every office we have the power to influence. No longer can we hope a single virtuous President (even if one could be found) can change a nation. Even the sole leadership of Pertinax at the head of the Roman Empire could not wield the scepter of power enough to change the course of his empire. We must focus on electing virtuous officials at the city, county, state, and national levels.
Planting Seeds for the Long Term
Because of the divided nature of our government – which I do believe is the best form albeit not without flaws – political change relies first on cultural change. Influential political individuals and organizations have become increasingly privy to the fact that culture precedes politics in a society where citizens hold voting power. In a monarchy, the cultural wars are much less influential on politics, but in a democracy or republican form of government, the culture dictates the tide of politics. Hence, in the United States (and I expect abroad, too) political powers have increasingly turned toward social and cultural means of affecting deeper shifts in politics. If one is to win the future political war, one must plant those seeds in the culture now.
Hence, while we can vote for the most virtuous leaders at all levels of government, the best insurance for the future is to plant the seeds of virtue in our culture today. While one leader cannot save a nation, the collective embrace of virtue in society can.