Part I of this project established that poverty was widespread in ancient Rome and Part II concluded that grudges of elites often superseded the interests of the populace. Clearly, it follows that when rivalries are deemed by rulers to be more important than their constituencies, social problems such as poverty will likely not be addressed as well as they could be. Quite simply, resources will be allocated to settle political scores in these instances.
One of the questions posed in the commentary in the aftermath of Part II was, “What would make self-interest not be the thing that wins out in politics?” Providing an answer to this question will be at the heart of this final discussion, but the short answer, in my view, is that in order to curb self-interest the populous must engage in an extensive vetting process prior to going to the ballot box and they must continue to hold those in office accountable during their tenure.
This of course rests on a number of assumptions ranging from media coverage that allows a citizenry to make educated judgments to a political climate that holds office seekers accountable to the truth, and it can certainly be argued that in the present we enjoy neither. It is assumed that candidates will lie, and this alienates the public from engaging in the process altogether, and, when they do, they usually desire to lash out and mock it rather than actually engage in policy debate.
This reaction is quite natural; if one considers themselves to be duped time and again in a game that must exist but they do not have to necessarily participate in, they eventually quit it or pipe up to call it ludicrous. Eventually, after refraining from throwing the tennis ball for the dog for the umpteenth time in a row, he will disengage, and rightfully so, to endure mistreatment in a world with alternatives would epitomize selling oneself short on what they could be doing in this finite amount of time we call existence.
Briefly, Donald Trump must be considered for he is the elephant in the room in a discussion of these concepts, and as much as one tries to avoid hearing about him it is impossible to do so. However, one can hear thoughts on him anywhere from anyone, and furthermore I would like to spend the bulk of this paper on what I consider to be a political success in the modern era, so this will be kept terse.
In Part II it was suggested that Clodius’ successful efforts to speak the language of the Roman plebeians allowed him to secure and maintain power in a structure of elites that largely ignored the poor. It was further suggested in the piece that Trump has enjoyed similar success, and I would maintain that this is what he is doing. Trump speaks in a way that his supporters envision they would speak if they were a rich celebrity, and he gives his supporters, in some capacity, answers for why they are down-and-out: both the Democrats and the GOP embraced free trade at the expense of the American worker, Bush spent trillions in Iraq, Washington’s corrupt. Yes, the rebuttal is that it is not particularly nuanced and it reads like a college kid’s laundry list for why they support Bernie Sanders. Additionally, Trump is unable to go into much further depth because there does not appear to be much more to him than what meets the surface, but, it must also be ceded that when he lists these reasons for why America has declined, he is on to something.
Sanders has similar stances on trade and foreign policy. People in the heartland can see he is on to something too—they’re not oblivious to many of the factors that threaten their own livelihoods. Of course, when the stupid mix of xenophobia and wall-building and twitter feuding enter the field of play, it is difficult to refrain from simply mocking it. My lasting thought with regard to Trump, and this is a charitable take on his supporters, is that they are disillusioned that their jobs were shipped away, disillusioned that a party took their votes for granted yet never did anything for them, and enough was enough. It is easy to tap into racial biases and fears when the going is tough, and I would like to think that everything stems from the economic misfortune. In other words, if his supporters were to be provided with job opportunities and money to feed and educate their kids, the xenophobia would wane. Trump promises to do just that, and, when the status quo has failed you since before you can remember, to many he is worth the gamble.
So both ancient Rome and modern times reveal that if one succeeds in making an appeal to the masses, a formidable following can be comprised. The question that remains is how to ensure that the person(s) the populace abets is not a demagogue or, at worst, a tyrant. As previously noted, an educated populace is helpful which is in large part dependent on the media coverage it receives. I would now like to turn our attention to Scotland, and in particular the Scottish independence referendum that took place in 2014. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention beforehand that I backed independence at the time and would still back independence if the vote were held today. But that’s beside the point.
To briefly recap, it has long been argued on the Scottish political left that they should secede from the rest of the United Kingdom. The most straightforward reason is that a solely Scottish government would better represent the interests of the Scottish people than a government comprised of mostly English along with some Welsh and Northern Irish. Additional reasons why independence would make sense include that Scotland is to the left of England on nearly every issue, Scottish students perform the best in the United Kingdom, Scotland is a net contributor to the UK’s finances (i.e., they pay more in tax than they get back), and an independent Scotland would gain full rights to the oil reserves in the North Sea. Economists estimated Scotland would follow in the footsteps of Norway who has used its own access to oil along with its already strong education and health care systems to develop a model nation.
After a long campaign, the young people of Scotland voted in favor of independence but the older generation emphatically opposed the referendum and the final vote tally secured a comfortable 55%-45% victory for the anti-independence side, “Better Together”. Voter turnout was a whopping 85%, and Scotland was widely praised for its ability to conduct a referendum with so much on the line and such a high turnout void of any violent confrontations.
For casual observers across the pond, the story may have ended here, but this was in fact only the beginning of what has transpired into a fascinating case study. Bluntly, Scottish independence was never going to pass in 2014: polls suggested it was never all that close, the press was largely pro-union, and in the eleventh hour the notorious British tabloids were running stories that suggested all businesses would leave Scotland if they seceded, pensioners would lose their pensions, the country would have no currency, and, since they would no longer be part of the UK nor yet part of the EU, Scotland was most liable to be attacked. Most of it was classic fear mongering—to be expected but nevertheless unfortunate.
The Scottish people expected such tactics on the part of the Conservatives, Britain’s center right party who enjoys a majority in the British parliament but is widely despised in Scotland and has nearly zero representation in its territory, but it was actually the center left Labour Party that they felt most betrayed by. Labour publicly came out in favor of staying within the UK, a blow to the independence movement but not terribly surprising as Labour likely chose its side based on how the vote would ultimately go. This was all well and good, and the Scottish people expected Labour to engage in a civil debate with the Scottish National Party (SNP), also self-described center left but certainly to the left of Labour, on the matter of independence (SNP was the only major political party to publicly back independence). However, Labour largely failed to engage with the SNP on the merits of independence from the viewpoint of a center left voter (as most people are in Scotland). Instead, they used rightwing talking points and scare tactics to talk down independence, often patronizing, and often campaigning alongside Conservatives, Tories as they are known in the UK, who as aforementioned are widely disliked in Scotland. It would take a long time to go into a full historical account as to why, but let’s just say Thatcher’s reign was not kind to Scotland.
As we will recall, anti-independence, championed by Labour and the Tories, ultimately won. Older Scots deemed independence to be just a tad too risky, and when they read headline after headline about their pensions being dismantled or how they would be unable to visit their English relatives because they would be without a passport, they could not be blamed for their vote. But the Scots would not forget the scare tactics of Labour, and they were angry when many of the myths they perpetuated were conveniently debunked by the press mere days after the election.
Prior to 2015, Scotland was considered a Labour stronghold: they had voted Labour for decades, 41 of its 59 seats were in Labour’s control, if you were a Scot you went to the polls on election day, muttered “[Expletive] the Tories,” and cast your vote Labour. On May 7, 2015, the day of the United Kingdom general election, the Scottish people flipped 40 of 41 of those seats over to the SNP, and in addition flipped 10 of 11 of the Lib Dem seats (centrist party in Britain that formed a coalition with the Conservatives, as a result a betrayal of Scotland in their eyes) also to the SNP. By the end of the night, the SNP, the party that backed the losing independence vote, controlled 56 of 59 seats in Scotland. Before, they controlled just 6.
It was one of the most miraculous results in political history and it revealed so many things about how an engaged and educated electorate can truly impact the political process. This result showcased that informed voters can distinguish a party as a whole from a single issue (even when they disagree with a single issue), that they do value integrity (even the staunchest anti-independence supporters lauded the SNP’s efforts during the campaign), and that if a party is deemed to sell its soul in favor of self-interest at the expense of the people, if presented with a genuinely well-intentioned alternative as the SNP presented themselves as, bad actors can be shown the door in favor of good actors.
Scotland is of course not largely representative of many countries and skeptics will be the first to point that out: it is largely homogenous, well-educated, and there is a general consensus that leftist politics are preferable to those on the right. But it still does provide hope that if representatives emerge from the ranks of the people and truly wish to represent their best interests, political success stories can occur. One of the MPs elected in Scotland in 2015 is younger than I am, a native Glaswegian now serving in parliament as the representative of her home constituency. I find it hard to believe that she is already compromised, that all political actors are inherently bad eggs.
The United States is indeed not Scotland, and sometimes the options we are presented with simply do not seem as though they represent us or know what it feels like to be us at all, but it does not necessarily have to be this way. Electing from within, paying close attention, and staying engaged in the process is the best way to right a ship in murky waters. It might not happen overnight, but in time it can only help save us from our current trajectory which is grim and inspires us to only mock the next ignorant sound bite.