By Michael Bryan
We are seeing something very unusual in the history of American politics in this cycle’s GOP Presidential primary: a complete abandonment of the American Cursus Honorum on the Right. I believe it gives significant insights into a building crisis of legitimacy in the democratic process on the Right.
Many will not know what I mean by Cursus Honorum, and if they do, may dispute that even it applies to American politics. I will explain the concept, argue for how it has historically been normative in the American political system, and then describe why I think current events are violating those norms, and what that may mean.
The Roman Cursus Honorum:
I’m going to give the details of the Roman institution short shrift; if you are interested in history and want fine detail, there are many good sources. Suffice it to say, that during the Roman Republican period, the Cursus Honorum, often translated “path of honor,” was a series of progressively more powerful offices that had minimum age requirements and which required a candidate to hold the lower offices before being eligible for higher ones. This was the way that the Roman Constitution regulated the political ambition of young politicians and progressively trained them to the functions and duties of governance. Arguably, this legal and traditional restriction on access to the higher offices ensured stable governance, protected against populist tyranny, and created a resevoir of administrative, military, and legal talent the State could draw upon to meet the challenges of guiding the State wisely.
In the Republican era, you did not have the tragedy of teenagers, incompetents, scoundrels, and the power-mad (not to mention the just plain old insane) wielding supreme power by the inherence or usurpation of the imperium as not-infrequently happened when the Republic was in its death throes, and after the Imperium supplanted it. The earliest age a Roman could seek one of the two Consul seats (the de jure head of State) was 40 or 42 depending on his ancestry.
That candidate for Consul would have to have previously held offices that required him to fulfill a wide range of state duties: financial duties related to taxes, military operations, and the state treasury; political duties as a member of the Senate; administrative duties related to public infrastructure, buildings, and events; legal duties in the Roman courts; military command duties over Roman legions, and in direct governance of a Roman province; and ceremonial and religious duties throughout his career. A candidate for the Consulship understood, or at least had some experience in, the full range of functions of the Roman State. There were some uninspired Consuls in during the Republic, but there were very few embarrassingly incompetent or stupid ones, which might help account for why a small village rose to rule most of the known world.
The American Cursus Honorum:
Clearly, America has never had a formal Cursus Honorum laid out by law as did the Roman Republic. The only requirements of public offices are some constitutionally-derived citizenship or residency requirements and minimum ages, and often some disqualifications for prior criminal history.
However, even these rudimentary eligibility requirements do tend to create strong pressure to hold some lower offices prior to holding more powerful ones. For instance, the age of eligibility for legislative offices is generally lower than that for executive offices (25 and 30 for House and Senate, 35 for President on the Federal level; and various requirements among the states, typically 18-25 for state legislatures, 30 for Governorships and the judiciary).
These age requirements encourage the politically ambitious to channel their energy toward legislative offices first, where they can learn the business of lawmaking, governmental inquiry and oversight, and political ethics in a collegial environment, learning by (hopefully positive) example and mentorship from seasoned peers. Only with additional some maturity and life experience do citizen-politicians become eligible for positions in the executive and judiciary where discretion is more broad, decisions are often taken singularly rather then in committee, and the powers and duties are more varied and complex.
The result has been that American Presidents have almost universally come to the office with prior political experience. The major exception is those Presidents that had previously been career military officers in command on American forces in time of war. There has never been (with only one exception) an American President elected who did not either have prior experience in elective office, or of high military command. The single exception was Herbert Hoover, who ran a global corporation, and then food relief agencies before getting into the Presidential primary of 1920 having never held office, and winding up with the consolation prize of U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Harding and Coolidge Presidencies. He later ran and won the Presidency as the single-term President who inaugurated the Great Depression, got turfed out by Roosevelt, and is generally ranked by historians as one of the least effective Presidents.
Save for military commanders such as Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower, it is nearly universal that to win the Presidency, a politician needs to have previously held legislative office (preferably the Senate) and/or a Governorship of a State or Territory, and preferably both. Thus, the American political system, though lacking any legally mandated Cursus Honorum, has a de facto one that requires any successful candidate for our highest office to have held political office, preferably in both the legislative and executive branches of a state’s or the federal government, or to have commanded our military in war. No one has ever been elected to the Presidency who did not previously hold an elective office or military commission of public trust and accountability. Even Hoover had been U.S. Secretary of Commerce for eight years, during which his high-profile performance of a public trust was closely scrutinized.
Maybe the leadership talent generated by our informal political Cursus Honorum goes some small way to explaining how a rag-tag collection of former colonies on the edge of the North American continent rose to become the pre-eminent economic and military power in the history of the world.
The Current GOP Primary:
It is certainly not unprecedented, or even unusual, for political light-weights, egotistical business moguls, religious nuts, or populist demagogues to throw their hats in the ring for the American Presidency under either major party ticket, or independently. What is unusual is for them to be taken seriously by the electorate.
Time and again these marginal candidates have a moment of fame or controversy, then the public looses interest in their novelty value in favor of tested and proven leaders. Such marginal candidates have seldom had any real effect on the major party’s selection of a candidate, at least since the primary system has become entrenched in the latter half of the 20th century, Some eventually hive off as an independent, or carry the banner of a minor third party in the general election.The rare exceptions have been when the marginal candidate without the background needed for election has enough money and organizational support to keep up their act for a longer haul in this expensive media intensive electoral environment: almost always it’s an independently wealthy crank, or a maybe an occasional religiously inspired zealot.
I’m sure most of us can recall examples of these few unusual candidates who made some impact: John Anderson, Ross Perot , maybe Pat Robertson. Most go nowhere fast: Steve Forbes, anyone? Herman Cain?
Because of their rather dismal historical performance, this season the political commentariat had good reason to expect that the latest crowd of inexperienced vanity crank candidates, including Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson (who is more of a religious zealot than a wealthy crank, it turns out, though his estimated net worth is at least $10 million) would fade quickly as their lack of experience disqualified them among a GOP electorate with much more experienced candidates with equivalent or even superior conservative political and religious credentials, such as … well, pretty much the entire rest of the field.
So why has Trump been able to defy historical gravity, as it were? Why has Ben Carson gained so steadily? Fiorina certainly had a moment, but seems to have ebbed in the normal rhythm of infatuational polling responses at this stage of the primary slog. Are Trump’s and Carson’s commanding leads in the polls just an unusually persistent bubble of normal discontents, soon to deflate as actual voting approaches? Maybe. But even the smart money in the political prediction markets seem to be predicting that the electorate may not sober up before voting. Trump’s and Carson’s stock remains valuable, though Fiorina is currently a penny stock on par with Jindal, Paul and Christey. For those with an investment philosophy of persistent return to historical mean, there is a small killing to be made in these markets by shorting Trump and Carson.
I’m not confident enough in the GOP electorate’s good sense to lay down money on either Trump or Carson fading before voting begins. I suspect that their long dominance in the polls may signal something new in a American politics: the Republican electorate is rejecting the products of the Cursus Honorum as being irredeemably tainted by the very political system that produced them. In the past few cycles they have flirted long and hard with the some of the more unelectable and insufficiently qualified characters, but eventually embraced the establishment candidate. I am far from certain that the center will hold this time around.
The Republican base doesn’t want a Presidential candidate who can be elected and govern the country. They want a candidate who will express their outrage and disillusionment with the unwieldy and veto-infested political process created by our current constitutional order, and promise to tear it down by force of personality. They want someone who will give them the illusion that the wholesale changes they want to make to the federal government are achievable, and even simple. They want a candidate that will tell them only what they want to hear, and assure them that they are right and that their regressive, oppressive, bigoted, and antiquarian vision of government can and will inevitably be achieved.
They want someone who will burn the village down to “save” it.
Those Republican candidates who have the background and experience to actually become President can only go so far in indulging such delusions and fever dreams; they can’t muster the sincerely insouciant radicalism required to have any credibility with the GOP base. That’s why guys like Bush, Christie, Walker, Huckabee, and Kasich (the oligarchs’ proven towel boys), one of whom would normally be expected to get the keys to the big house, can’t get any traction: they are more than willing to serve the 1%, but can’t make with the crazy sufficient to get the base excited. They’ve all actually had to govern in our inefficient-by-design system of government that requires unpleasant compromises merely to function at all, which automatically labels them squishes and RINOs among a right-wing electorate indoctrinated by talk radio and Fox News, and marinated in their frustration of 7 years and counting of that illegitimate, socialist, Kenyan, faggot, tyrannical, uppity, know-it-all nigger in the White House.
The Republicans have even started to try to convince themselves that Trump is the most electable of the field of candidates. That’s patently absurd. Trump has as much chance of becoming President as did Perot. Zero. He’s far too crass, buffoonish, offensive, and willfully ignorant of governance for the American people to vote him into office. Of course, that’s what people thought of Hitler when he entered national politics, but I’m not drawing any comparison to Hitler or the Holocaust or anything… I’ll leave that to Ben Carson.
Ben Carson is also not a realistic candidate for all the reasons heretofore outlined. In addition, Republicans might like the optics of black man in their primary, but they don’t want another one of ‘them’ in the White House. Nor does he help them demographically; Carson couldn’t improve the GOP’s share of the black vote by even 1%.
When the dust settles and the GOP Convention arrives, my money is on Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio. They have sufficient experience to be marginally credible candidates, while lacking a long and crippling voting record, and still being able to bring the crazy of ideological zealotry convincingly. Both also carry the (wholly empty) strategic promise of helping the GOP with Latino voters. In the end, I think Rubio blew his shot by trying to actually get something done and trying to govern even a little during his short time in the Senate. Cruz has been more canny: making himself the most hated man in Washington with his pointless theatrics, personal anti-charm, and encouragement of the Liberty Caucus wackadoodles. He’s the candidate the GOP wants this time around. The perfect blend of marginally sufficient experience, educational and professional pedigree, and balls-to-the-wall crazy. I’ll be buying shares in Ted Cruz for GOP nominee – at 20 cents a share, he’s a steal.