What Polybius said about the Tea Party

I’ve been spending the weekend talking to various visitors from Europe, and they are, shall we say, fascinated by the American mood this year.

The country, a superpower that is hard for foreigners to ignore even when they try, seems to have gone loony-potty. A movement is afoot that wraps itself in a historic-sounding name, the Tea Party, then feeds on undistilled anger to rebel against… well, it’s not clear against exactly what.

The Hannibal Blog embraces intellectual contradictions as though they were steps in a Jacob’s ladder toward more humble and refined views. The Tea Party, on the other hand, won’t even acknowledge its contradictions. That’s the wrong way to go on a ladder.

And so we return once again to Polybius (Histories, VI, 57), who so influenced our Founding Fathers (those of the real Tea Party), and who seemed, about 2,150 years ago, to have something to say about America in 2010:

When a state, after warding off many great perils, achieves supremacy and uncontested sovereignty, it is evident that under the influence of long-established prosperity life will become more luxurious, and among the citizens themselves rivalry for office and in other spheres of activity will become fiercer than it should. As these symptoms become more marked, the cravings for office and the sense of humiliation which obscurity imposes, together with the spread of ostentation and extravagance, will usher in a period of general deterioration. The principal authors of this change will be the masses, who at some moments will believe that they have a grievance against the greed of other members of society, and at others are made conceited by the flattery of those who aspire to office. By this stage they will have been roused to fury and their deliberations will constantly be swayed by passion, so that they will no longer consent to obey or even to be the equals of their leaders, but will demand everything of by far the greatest share for themselves. When this happens the constitution will change its name to the one which sounds the most imposing of all, that of freedom and democracy, but its nature to that which is the worst of all, that is the rule of the mob.

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54 thoughts on “What Polybius said about the Tea Party

  1. Very interesting and insightful. But let me be my usual contrarian self and say…

    While insightful, it is reversed. The clue, however, is in this line:

    As these symptoms become more marked, the cravings for office and the sense of humiliation which obscurity imposes, together with the spread of ostentation and extravagance, will usher in a period of general deterioration.

    More tomorrow, I am tired and I ache (knee-wise) and I am cranky….

  2. well “here” is what the NY Times has to say about the demographics of the “Mob” and what they may be rebelling against.

    @ Douglas, we are unlikely to agree on the topic. It seems to me that this mainly wealthy educated bunch are protesting against “others” namely the poor acquiring what they (the tea-party goers) already enjoy.

    heres an interesting claim – “the current administration favors the poor and favors blacks over whites” tell that to my poor black savta.

    • @Dafna

      I read with interest the NY Times piece you linked to, and thought one of the Tea Partyers hit the nail on the head when she said of Obama:

      “……he’s a Muslim and trying to head us in that direction………..He’s been in office over a year and can’t find a church to go to. That doesn’t say much for him……”

      As a Muslim not able to find a church to go to, it certainly doesn’t say much for him.

    • @ Phil,

      is this sarcasm concerning the ignorance of the Tea Party? Obama of course is not a Muslim, and if he were why would he be searching for a church? funny stuff!

    • I have read the NYT piece on the make-up of the Tea Party people. The thing is that they aren’t a “mob” , they aren’t seeking office and power, they are simply people who feel they have been largely ignored. They are mostly people from the “flyover states”, the ones who neither caused the problems nor got any bailout money. They mostly see themselves as powerless.

      If you read the lines I quoted, you will see that Polybius was talking about those who seek actual power, a “place at the table”, so to speak.

      Pay attention to what the administration has been doing… rousing up anger toward Big Oil, Wall Street, Banks, large corporations and making them the “cause” of all our woes. They may have had a hand in it but they also had a hand in creating the economy most people were enjoying before it fell. The interesting thing, as I see it, is that the same folks who were high up in those “evil entities that caused our problems” are now working for the administration. The unions seem to be the “unruly mobs” of Polybius’ complaint. Especially in Greece. In the US, they showed up on some executives front lawns when the economy started sliding down. And were the “unruly mobs” who protested the Bush administration when it was in power and unemployment was almost half what it is today.

      The only thing true about the Tea Party people is that they are mostly just the broad, lower to middle, middle class. And they are frustrated and angry. They see the country they knew changing in ways they do not like. They see career politicians ignore them. They see the polls that say the majority of the people are opposed to certain policies and proposed laws and they watch Congress enact them anyway.

      They are being made the symbols of unrest, the potential “unruly mob”, when they have yet to smash a window, throw a rock, or do anything more than assemble, wave some hand-made signs, and back some candidates (who seem to be popular enough to win) and show a general anti-incumbent mood.

      Contrast them with the protesters in Greece, with the Arizona protesters.

      Pay close attention to who is stirring up what kind of mobs.

    • @ Douglas,

      “that they are mostly just the broad, lower to middle, middle class” – you disagree with the NY Times assessment of the demographics?

      as you know, i am pro-dissent, so i have nothing against a diverging opinion. your objection to the term “mob” is well noted. strictly speaking they are not a “loud disorganized mass of common people” – agreed

      in fact they are not even a representation of the “masses” according to the demographic survey.

      however they are very energetic and appear to me to be motivated by prejudice, which as we all know can quietly grow and spread and lead to very bad things.

      Douglas, the description you offer of the demographics in your first paragraph fits ME, but i am NOT a Tea-Party supporter.

    • @Dafna

      “that they are mostly just the broad, lower to middle, middle class” – you disagree with the NY Times assessment of the demographics?

      I saw nothing in the NYT article that indicated the actual numbers and income except a headline. I noted that a “retired medical transcriber” and a “homemaker” were the only one quoted. I also noted that the poll was a telephone poll where more than half (881 out of 1580) of the respondents were Tea Party supports while reporting “18 percent of Americans… identified themselves as supporters.”

      In other words, I saw no proof of the claim in the headline.

      What I did see was this:

      “Tea Party supporters offered three main concerns: the recent health care overhaul, government spending and a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington. ”

      Which is pretty much as I described their complaints.

      in fact they are not even a representation of the “masses” according to the demographic survey.

      Which, I would say, fits in with the less than 4% of the general public according to the article:

      “Of the 18 percent of Americans who identified themselves as supporters, 20 percent, or 4 percent of the general public, said they had given money or attended a Tea Party event, or both.”

      So, of this 18%, though supporters, only 1/5th actually participate in Tea Party activities in any way.

      Much ado about nothing, one might say. Or quite possibly a heavily slanted series of related articles in the NYT.

      And you seem to have taken it for gospel…

      however they are very energetic and appear to me to be motivated by prejudice, which as we all know can quietly grow and spread and lead to very bad things.

      On the other hand, you have ignored the actual bad behavior by other groups protesting things where debris and bottles were thrown and windows have been smashed.

      Perhaps you should examine your own prejudices and make sure you are looking at all sides in an unbiased manner.

  3. At times when you read those antiquity writers, philosophers and historians you get the feeling that you are reading the morning paper’s columnists. We could learn so much from them…if they were still studied in our schools.

    • Amen. Or even “if they were still studied,” whether in schools or not.
      I don’t know why the ancient classics have become unfashionable in our generation. I am still hoping it is a temporary phenomenon….

    • The rush of modern technology (which makes the classics so available ironically) also tends to keep us looking at the present and future without having much time, or at least we have too many distractions, to spend looking back at the chronicles of our past. That’s unfortunate because human nature doesn’t really change. What we learn about people in the past is applicable today.

    • Hey Andreas,
      Our fellow Taft and Williams alum linked to this post and I thought I should comment, since I am one of those non-existent people who 1) makes a living studying the Classics and 2) wrote my dissertation on the same period that Polybius is writing on. I do think that Polybius is accessing a “moral decline” paradigm here that, while popular, is more of a literary topos than a genuine socio-economic phenomenon. The developments in the Roman Republic that he is calling mob rule would seem like the most basic rights to us today, things like having every citizen’s vote count the same, and making the upper classes obey their own laws about the use of public land rather than pushing poor farmers off the land. The one thing that I think does graft pretty well onto modern politics is the kind of false populism that accompanies the increased competition for public office he is lamenting. Think folksy Sarah Palin pulling down $12 million last year. The tea parties, for all their protestations of grass roots status, are not representative of a disenfranchised populace; they have on average more money and more education than the populace at large, and are well funded by Tom Delay’s and other Astroturf organizations. But Rand Paul is no Tiberius Gracchus, in part because we have a written constitution, as much as some seek to undermine it.

    • Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Dylan.

      I’ve checked out your page, and I love your interests.

      The Aemilius Paullus work sounds fascinating. (That’s the son of the Cannae consul and adoptive father of Scipio Aemilianus, right?)

      As does Flamininus. (He’s the one who would have captured Hannibal, had he, Hannibal, not committed suicide.)

      It is scandalous that people like you don’t have a blog with regular, geeky updates about the minutiae of your research. A small but fanatical community of us would be following along.

      I’ve had a fair bit of (amateurish) stuff here on the Hannibal Blog about your period — Pyrrhus, Carthage/Rome, Hellenism, etc. Feel free to poke holes in all of it. I’m learning.

      How much do you use Polybius in your research?

    • I wonder what Polybius might say about a gentleman, from a non-ruling class, making a few millions from a book to help him secure political office that will pay him a large salary for the rest of his life while also opening up opportunities (once he leaves) to make even more millions?

    • Dylan, one other thought, regarding Polybius:

      I assumed that he was NOT talking about Rome in this passage (which had not yet begun to deteriorate and would later make him sound prescient) but instead about his own Greek city states.

  4. Is the Tea Party movement really about what its protagonists say it’s about, or is there a subtext?

    I had found found of interest some weeks ago *this NY Times piece by Frank Rich* which, although inspired by the furore over Health Care, could arguably apply also to the furore over taxes and the other things the Tea Partyers ostensibly don’t like.

    Frank Rich, in his piece, noted that before Health Care, the previous issue that evoked such anger in America was Civil Rights because it “……..signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance……”.

    Thus “……..the health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964……..”

    Hence “……..If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play………”.

    Could what Frank Rich said in this piece apply equally to the furore over taxes?

    • thanks phil and paul, i was trying to say just that.

      Douglas,

      i have made a judgement which is different from judgmental or prejudice.

      Knowing you from the blog only, perhaps what bothers you about the criticism of the Tea-Party movement is that as an individual – you are about their “issues’ and do not share what many view as their “subtext of prejudice”.

      Andreas – “craving power in the Nietzschean sense” again avery cool phrase, i have no idea what it means 😦

    • @Dafna

      Knowing you from the blog only, perhaps what bothers you about the criticism of the Tea-Party movement is that as an individual – you are about their “issues’ and do not share what many view as their “subtext of prejudice”.

      You have misread me entirely. Both in our email exchanges and on this blog.

      You do have prejudices and biases. As do we all. Some of us recognize that we have them and do not allow them to influence our judgment.

      I will leave it at that.

    • “craving power in the Nietzschean sense” again avery cool phrase, i have no idea what it means…

      You guys keep me honest here. 🙂 🙂

      (Nietzsche wrote a lot about “the will to power” and the ressentiment of the downtrodden who envy the “elites” and want to get even with them.)

    • I think the Tea Party crowd will subside again once people in these brackets of society feel better represented and their economic situation improves (would that this will happen for all of us). I don’t worry about this particular movement becoming a force for totalitarianism, but the fear of such a thing happening is always real.

  5. @Douglas, I believe you are wrong in thinking that members of the Tea Party are not clamouring for power. Some, such as the various candidates trying to unseat incumbents today (as they already have in Utah) are explicitly running for office. Others are craving power in the Nietzschean sense. All are, collectively, influencing American politics and policy as a whole, by distorting debates with populist non sequiturs. This is the sort of thing that Hamilton and Madison were afraid of.

    • @Andreas, I do not think I am wrong. What I was trying to point out is that the very same complaints could be made about any political party and that political parties do demonize sectors of society in order to gain, or enhance, power. The Tea Party, by the way, is not a political party and is not even a single entity or political bloc.

      I looked into Polybius. What I found was that he was born of the ruling class, sided with (and benefited from) the Romans when they went after Greece, and so on. To be fair, he was not enamored with “democracy” but we do not live in one, we live in a republic.

    • Yes, I see your point.

      Regarding Polybius: One reason why we live in a republic (although in places like California and 23 other states it is increasingly a direct democracy) is actually Polybius:

      He influenced Montesquieu, and Montesquieu influenced Madison and Hamilton….

      But Polybius did not “side” with the Romans: He was captured by them and became the house slave of the Scipio family. Thanks to his great erudition, he won their respect, and became the best friend of Scipio Aemilianus, the adoptive grandson of Scipio Africanus, a main character in my book. Polybius joined Scipio Aemilianus when the latter led the Roman destruction of Carthage, which moved him to write a history of the rise of Rome and the fate of all mankind….

    • @Andreas

      But Polybius did not “side” with the Romans

      “In 171 war had broken out between Rome and the Macedonian king Perseus, and the Achaean statesmen were divided as to the policy to be pursued; there were good reasons for fearing that the Roman senate would regard neutrality as indicating a secret leaning towards Macedon. Polybius therefore declared for an open alliance with Rome, and his views were adopted. It was decided to send an Achaean force to cooperate with the Roman general, and Polybius was selected to command the cavalry.”

      “Polybius was arrested with 1000 of the principal Achaeans, but, while his companions were condemned to a tedious incarceration in the country towns of Italy, he obtained permission to reside in Rome. This privilege he owed to the influence of L. Aemilius Paullus and his two sons, Scipio and Fabius. Polybius was received into Aemilius’s house, and became the instructor of his sons.”

      http://www.nndb.com/people/541/000107220/

      History is not only written by the victors, it is interpreted according to the POV of the reader.

      we live in a republic (although in places like California and 23 other states it is increasingly a direct democracy)

      California may be a “proof” of Polybius’ belief of what democracies devolve into. The courts in California fight hard against that full democracy thing, though.

  6. The US urgently needs a healthy multi-party system. In a strictly two party system, when you are out of power you have to let your extremists have a voice and that leads to confrontation. In a multi-party system, the extremists gravitate to fringe parties outside the mainstream where they can nurse their grievances and dream up conspiracy theories and not do any harm. In the meantime, well meaning people with different ideologies can meet in the middle and develop workable compromise solutions.

    It just seems wrong that the quality of someone’s economic policy should be determined based on their views on abortion.

    • “Hannibal, Hannibal, third party, party of three your table is ready…”

      no smoking and no-conspiracy theory allowed. solve a world problem and your bill is negotiable.

    • @Thomas

      It would not require anything more than the will of the electorate. There is nothing in the Constitution which defines our system as limited to two parties.

    • @Thomas

      The US urgently needs a healthy multi-party system.

      It actually has a multi-party system. You are correct about it not being a “healthy” one. Unfortunately, that has been the choice of the voting public, not the system. It is the voters who make it an essentially 2 party system by not supporting any of the minor (some might say “fringe”) parties which exist. This may be the result of a conservative (psychologically, if not politically) electorate.

      I think our current political structure also works against it, parliamentary systems seem much more conducive to full multi-party political atmosphere. There are times I think we might be better off with a parliamentary form but I harbor suspicions that we would not have become the world power we are had we adopted that form at the beginning.

    • @Thomas,

      Yes, I was thinking of a change to proportional representation and that would probably require a constitutional change.

      Well, I tend to agree but mostly about the existing redistricting procedures. I don’t think there’s anything else that would preclude it. As you know, the party in power after a census has a great opportunity to consolidate that power (and grow it) while weakening the power base of its opponents. We will see that happen in the next year or so which makes the 2010 elections very important.*

      Since we’ve been doing it this way for so long, even if we could mandate a change (through Amendment or by simple law), I would envision a major battle over just how the districts should be delineated. Should we begin with the districts as they are? Or should we reform them and then make them permanent? Should we limit size according to a specific number of people? All the usual political battles that happen each time redistricting occurs. There seems to be little guidance in the Constitution.

      *but does not have to happen at that time, it can be at any time. It is just traditionally when we do this.

    • When the two parties in the U.S. are actually each coalitions of regional parties and interests, we see some of the multi-party system at work even within this rigid system. Sadly, this is often overlooked and money has become the end all (for quite some time now), and the two party system becomes a money chase. Money chases power and power chases the money.

      The special elections in NY and more recently in PA do show one how out of touch national party figures often are now when it comes to local and regional issues. In both cases, national party king-makers in the GOP, neither in Washington or on the Right Wing were able to elect their anointed candidates. There is a message there, and it has been somewhat repeated in the Democrat side of the aisle with Sen. Spector’s defeat and Sen. Lincoln’s looming runoff battle.

  7. @ Douglas,

    please re-read my post. i was paying you a compliment. you have served me an insult.

    lets leave it at that.

    • @Dafna

      perhaps what bothers you about the criticism of the Tea-Party movement is that as an individual – you are about their “issues’ and do not share what many view as their “subtext of prejudice”.

      That is not a compliment. It is a slap at them while only possibly absolving me of being as bad as they “are” to you.

      Has it crossed your mind that you could be wrong about them at all?

      I understand their frustration, I agree with them about the direction this government is taking, I do not believe it is prejudice that is driving them. That there are some who are prejudiced and it is a part of their anger? Yes, that is true. That there is prejudice in us all and it distorts our view of things? Yes, that is true of the Left as well as the Right.

      If a person does the right thing, even though he is a bigot at heart, is he wrong about doing the right thing? Does that make the good thing he did a bad thing? People are complex.

      If a man is a philanderer but he does good for his community, is he to be vilified or praised?

      Do not condemn all the people in the Tea Party movement because you believe you know their motivation. You are human, you can be wrong.

  8. like the others, i have made a judgement NOT based on prejudice but on the similar sources of information as the rest of these people on the blog.

    and furthermore, though i am in opposition to the Tea-Party movement, my posts have been the least “condemning” of the bunch.

    so if you would like to voice your support of the movement… go on.

    Has it crossed your mind that you could be wrong about them (the Tea-Party) at all? or about me?

    i am sorry you identify so closely with the movement that you could not see that i was saying, yes, perhaps you are focused on issues and don’t share the characteristics which i find distasteful with the movement. you may choose to view it as a personal insult.

    i am simply sharing an opinion voiced by several others on this blog, and i am just as entitled to my views as you are to yours.

    • @Dafna
      i am simply sharing an opinion voiced by several others on this blog, and i am just as entitled to my views as you are to yours.

      Nowhere have I said you were not entitled. Nowhere have I said you are wrong or should not voice your opinion. And, by the way, being in the majority implies no more rightness or wrongness about any opinion.

      But please do not “sorry you identify so closely with the movement that you could not see that i was saying” and please do not make the assumption that my opinion is wrong because I am sympathetic toward the Tea Party movement. I am not sorry that you do not.

      It is that kind of condescension that comes across as “insult.”

    • “Some of us recognize that we have them and do not allow them to influence our judgment. I will leave it at that.” “Has it crossed your mind that you could be wrong about them at all?” since these words could be addressed to anyone on this blog…

      i took it to mean that you believe for some reason that although others on this blog, “right or wrong” have expressed similar opinions – i am incapable of forming a judgment without prejudice, that’s insulting.

      i am NOT sorry that you agree with the Tea-Party, nor have i called you wrong, i am sorry that i held out an olive branch with words and you chose to consider it insulting and condescending.

      here is a quote from the blog “seems to have gone loony-potty. A movement is afoot that wraps itself in a historic-sounding name, the Tea Party, then feeds on undistilled anger to rebel against… ”

      please rail against someone else… there are plenty of other posts to choose from.

  9. thanks for the explanation Andreas, but the Tea-Party members are not the “downtrodden”, correct?

    it would seem they resent the really downtrodden?

    “by distorting debates with populist non sequiturs” – also a very good point. it seems like contradictions upon contradictions.

  10. Dafna and Douglas, this is better than Wimbledon. Fancy strawberries and cream? Perhaps not, it might be wasted.

    • thanks for the link,

      nice to see someone else use the term “other”. i was beginning to think i was in a vacuum.

    • Thanks for that! What is also interesting is the TPP blind spot about cause and effect. Health insurance and illegal immigrants did not cause the deficit. Relaxation of financial regulations and involvment in two (seemingly forgotten) wars are what is causing the defict and who is responsible for that?

      Also, is there a word that captures a simultanteous feeling of amusement and disgust? That is what you feel when you read the knee-jerk TPP responses to Kinsley’s article.

  11. What de Tocqueville said about “Political Associations In The United States” 

    (from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America, Volume 1 Chapter XII):

    In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals.

    The citizen of the United States is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he only claims its assistance when he is quite unable to shift without it. This habit may even be traced in the schools of the rising generation, where the children in their games are wont to submit to rules which they have themselves established, and to punish misdemeanors which they have themselves defined. The same spirit pervades every act of social life. If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of the public is hindered, the neighbors immediately constitute a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power which remedies the inconvenience before anybody has thought of recurring to an authority superior to that of the persons immediately concerned. If the public pleasures are concerned, an association is formed to provide for the splendor and the regularity of the entertainment. Societies are formed to resist enemies which are exclusively of a moral nature, and to diminish the vice of intemperance: in the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion; for there is no end which the human will, seconded by the collective exertions of individuals, despairs of attaining.

    The greater part of Europeans look upon an  association  as a weapon which is to be hastily fashioned, and immediately tried in the conflict. A society is formed for discussion, but the idea of impending action prevails in the minds of those who constitute it: it is, in fact, an army; and the time given to parley serves to reckon up the strength and to animate the courage of the host, after which they direct their march against the enemy. Resources which lie within the bounds of the law may suggest themselves to the persons who compose it as means, but never as the only means, of success.

    Such, however, is not the manner in which the right of association is understood in the United States. In America the citizens who form the minority associate, in order, in the first place, to show their numerical strength, and so to diminish the moral authority of the majority; and, in the second place, to stimulate competition, and to discover those arguments which are most fitted to act upon the majority; for they always entertain hopes of drawing over their opponents to their own side, and of afterwards disposing of the supreme power in their name. Political associations in the United States are therefore peaceable in their intentions, and strictly legal in the means which they employ; and they assert with perfect truth that they only aim at success by lawful expedients.

    • jim,

      i wish to heck i was clever enough to understand your post.

      would you care to para-phrase?

    • An attempt at a summary of the above passages is 

      (1) that Americans are more likely than Europeans to form voluntary associations; 

      (2) that these associations often perform functions that in Europe either would be expected of government, or might not be performed at all;  

      (3) that these associations are more likely than their European counterparts to seek to persuade, rather than intimidate.  

      The right of association is used by Americans 

      (4) to demonstrate the numerical strength of the minority and thereby diminish the moral authority of the majority;
       
      (5) to discover which of the minority’s competing arguments particularly appeal to the majority;
       
      (6) to use those arguments to persuade enough of the majority to switch sides so as to bring about the changes the minority seeks.

      (Dafna, keep in mind that the passages I quoted are from an 1830s translation that has been superseded by more modern, perhaps easier to follow, translations, which are not yet in the public domain.)

    • thank you so much for the help.

      if you return to the blog, ” passage well chosen given our topic” ? it refers to the Tea-Party as an “association”, a minority trying to find which argument will be most effective to further its goals?

      i,m most embarrassed by my lack of connection.

    • @Jim,

      He also said this:

      “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

  12. we’re reading tom sawyer and the new article is synchronous with a line after an imaginary battle – “then the the dead were counted (sic), the terms of the next disagreement agreed upon, and the day for the necessary battle appointed; after which the armies fell into line and marched away…”

    if only…

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