Caesarobamism (On Those Recess Appointments)

Just a quick post – since you guys seem to want to discuss those recess appointments, and since they do raise some interesting issues that eventually get to the heart of constitutional government.  (I’ll be transferring your comments from the other thread – though I’m leaving the Wall discussion where it was.)

There’s been some interesting conversation at Jonathan Bernstein’s site:  His latest post on the topic discusses whether Republican obstructionism really deserves the term “Nullification,” and follows an earlier post on the question of who decides when a “recess” is really a “Recess.”  Bernstein has been running his own personal campaign on this form of congressional sabotage of normal executive/administrative business, which he believes has gotten completely out of control in recent years.  It’s arguably at least as harmful to good government as the de facto 60-vote Senate.

On the second of those posts, a commenter who calls himself “Conservative Teacher” calls the President’s actions “criminal,” echoing the language of rightwing observers like John Yoo and sundry think tankers and HotAirians, who claim to have discovered “tyranny” in the President’s action – as though Obama had declared himself Caesar and crossed the Potomac under arms, or at least, like Lincoln but with no cause, had suspended basic provisions of the Constitution.

The whole thing reminds me of a passage from Leo Strauss on the notion of a “just tyranny,” the “good Caesar” who arises by historical necessity to rescue a people from chaos (or to avenge its misdeeds):

Caesarism is just, whereas tyranny is unjust.  But Caesarism is just in the way in which deserved punishment is just.  It is as little choiceworthy for its own sake as is deserved punishment.  Cato refused to see what his time demanded because he saw too clearly the degraded and degrading character of what his time demanded.  It is much more important to realize the low level of Caesarism (for, to repeat, Caesarism cannot be divorced from the society which deserves Caesarism) than to realize that under certain conditions Caesarism is necessary and hence legitimate.

I’ll emphasize that Obama is not really or yet a Caesar, in my view, but I do sometimes wonder just how degraded and degrading our political culture has become, and whether the conflict over the constitutionality of these recess appointments isn’t a kind of premonition or rehearsal of total civic breakdown.

What the Republicans have done -building on a tactic apparently first deployed by the other party – may, as per Matt Glassman, qualify more as mere “Hardball” than as a 21st Century version of “Nullification” (the 19th Century version having been incompatible with national government and thus the preface to civil war), but it remains an example of the kind of challenge to self-governance that, multiplied out over the course of years, amidst waning national self-confidence and general and overwhelming skepticism regarding public institutions, would eventually, of necessity, likely prompt someone to cross the Potomac, destroying the DC Village even while intending, or pretending, to save it.




44 comments on “Caesarobamism (On Those Recess Appointments)

Commenting at CK MacLeod's

We are determined to encourage thoughtful discussion, so please be respectful to others. We also provide a set of Commenting Options - comment/commenter highlighting and ignoring, and commenter archives that you can access by clicking the commenter options button (). Go to our Commenting Guidelines page for more details, including how to report offensive and spam commenting.

  1. Heh, Frog, it’s always good to read above the subtext;

    …Section 1066 of Dodd-Frank provides that the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to perform the functions of the CFPB under the subtitle transferring authority to the CFPB from the other agencies “until the Director of the Bureau is confirmed by the Senate in accordance with Section 1011.” It turns out that section 1011 is a defined term which provides: “The Director shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

    This seems to suggest that even if the President might be able to appoint Cordray under the recess power the full grant of statutory authority wouldn’t transfer to the Bureau unless the statutory language was fulfilled as well.

  2. No, the point is they have no standards, specially when the statutory language proscribes what is actually being attempted,

    Not surprising the same tack, misrepresenting the other party’s arguments, pop up in many places;

    ‘Respondents do not contend that the Affordable Care Act’s Comprehensive Market Reforms, and the ends those reforms entail are beyond Congress’s powers (39) on the PDF)

  3. Yes, because he is actually breaking the law, they pulled the same trick with Negroponte, until September 11th forced their hand,

  4. It’s not really about the 19th Century, slavery was incompatible, with our nations principles, if it wasn ‘t for the Cotton Gin,
    it might have gone the way of the British experience with Wilberforce and Fox, yes Jim Crow was as w ell, some might say even more so, after the Civil War experience, What would constitute Caesarism anyways, apparently intervening militarily without congressional approval doesn’t matter either.

    • being entirely serious, I’m not sure that Paul would have supported federal action to declare the emancipation of the slaves.

      beyond his view of constitutional limits on federal authority, if you read his comments about federal infringement on contract and property rights that leads him to say that he couldn’t ever support the Civil Rights Act of 1963, you might understand that Paul would be very very reluctant to void purchase contracts involving slaves that would forcibly alienate the purchaser from his “property”.

      • I’m not sure that Paul has a coherent position on the subject. On the historical issues, he has called the Civil War a “senseless conflict,” and has argued that economics would have taken care of slavery. It’s a popular or at least frequently enunciated position among right-libertarians. I think he’s enough of a constitutionalist, however, that he considers actual amendments to the Constitution to be binding, even if they represent an undesirable expansion of federal power. Differing libertarians might react to slavery itself differently, though I think most today view it is obviously anti-liberty to declare any person to be somebody else’s property. What they would do about it is I think confined to taking their business elsewhere.

    • Militarily intervening against Congress itself, rather than merely without receving formal approval, might be worthy of the name Caesarism. What Obama has done – in making a few appointments to existing agencies under his preferred interpretation of the relevant law – is much further from Caesarism than Republican sabotage of those same agencies is from Nullification, but I’m persuaded that neither term applies.

      There was a rumor going around, flatly denied, that Obama was intending to use a similar maneuver to mount a major home mortgage relief effort. That would have been much more aggressive and risky than either these appointments or, in a different way, from supporting the international Libyan intervention in the way that he did. He exploited a gray area frequently exploited by presidents, sometimes much more egregiously, or in the face of clearly stated and duly passed legislation: Iran-Contra, on both ends of the plot, FDR’s pre-WW2 maneuvers to help our future allies, Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and military occupation of Baltimore, several much smaller-scaled interventions.

      The War Powers Act has never, I don’t believe, been put to the absolute test anyway. It would be interesting to see some serious, popular, congress-hating president launch an attack on the Budget Act, which is even more constraining on the powers of the presidency.

      • There was an even better rumor going around that Obama planned on having all public school children pledge allegiance to Obama every day. Only timely intervention from Glenn Beck foiled the scheme.

      • The War Powers Act is in fact, bad law, brought on in part because Congress had surrendered it’s power of the purse, but considering that W was ‘dinged’ for going to war, under two declarations of use of force, it seemed ironic, I still sustain that the Libyan operation will turn out much like the original operation in Afghanistan, a pyrrhic victory, with Qatar’s ruling circle rather than the Saudis as the major players. The Iran side of the operation was probably the dodgiest, particularly since goign through back channels ended up with Pasdaran operative, who
        would go on to direct the Buenos Aires hit, Feridoun Nezhi-Neshad, as the negotiator, although
        the ultimate figure apparently is now the Defense Minister, but that was the search for the famed
        ‘Iranian moderate’ which ended on Rafsanjani’s desk,

        That plan by Glenn Hubbard, is still under consideration, and it was Pethikouris, who gamed a few moves ahead,

        • I maintain that WW2 was a pyrrhic victory because the Jews were not given a country where their right to live (and live in peace) would be recognized. I know it’s the south, but I’ve always fantasized that giving them Florida would have worked. Go Heat! Except against the Clippers Wed night.

  5. The relevance of Ceasarextends or starts with his rhetorical approach. It is as much a part of his quest for conquering and domination as the force of his armies and battle plans. the Commentaries open by Ceasar dividing Gaul into 3 parts, not as description, as one might take it, but as a political geography. He does not descibe geographical or antropological facts well, but that is not the point. Rather he places himself as what stands between Rome and the increasing chaos threatening Rome as one ventures into Gaul, until total chaos is reaced as the shores of the seas of unknown.

    This is the beginning of how the necessity of tyranny is established.

    • Interesting – and Caesar was by most accounts a unique individual uniquely suited to the times, but the Republic had been already been falling for many years, having absorbed blow after blow to its traditions and integrity, while also proving ill-suited to and its increasingly imperial character. This standard historical view also provides a basis for the idea of Caesar’s seizure of power being in some sense just as well as necessary.

      • CK MacLeod: while also proving ill-suited to and its increasingly imperial character

        That imperial character would have been less, blunted, maybe thwartedwithout Ceasar. Maybe his successes accellerated/sustained the decline therefore setting the stage for his later necessity.

        • There’s an awful lot of classical history as well as philosophy against that view. Without Caesar, things obviously would have had to develop differently, but, in addition to the pre-existing weakness and gross instability that provided him with an opening, the fact that neither his assassination nor any subsequent efforts restored the Republic supports the (over)deterministic perspective on its obsolescence.

          Even apart from economic, geographical, military, and technological problems – which may sooner or later always re-appear – it remains a key premise of classical political science, not yet definitively overturned by our perhaps wishful modern alternatives, that democratic forms of government always sooner or later decay into oligarchy and other non-democratic, non-republican variants. Modern systems theory may also support this perspective. Our reluctance to accept it may in part be explained by our own status as citizen-beneficiaries of our own deteriorating mega-republic.

          • I’m over my head here, but what I’m envisioning is, sans Ceasar, something like some kind of collapse from which some kind of Rome could recover, as neither Republic nor Empire. That part of what prevented a return to the republic was Ceasar’s rhetorical success, reinforcing the view to the point of necessity that Empirewas the only alternative to chaos.

            I agree that I’m overstating the case here. I guess my thought is to highlight the common rhetorical strategy of Ceasar and Robin’s conservatives. “I am what stands between you and the three headed chaos so my tyranny is just because it is necessary.”

            Or something.

            • bob: I guess my thought is to highlight the common rhetorical strategy of Ceasar and Robin’s conservatives. “I am what stands between you and the three headed chaos so my tyranny is just because it is necessary.”

              That they say it doesn’t make it untrue. It also means that occasions arise in which their saying it helps them politically – and, going back to Hobbes/Schmitt, it may be definitional for the political. It it isn’t, then the alternatives by my count would be 1) some version of the embrace of chaos, including total skepticism; 2) Hegelian/messianic progressivism, having in common some notion of the movement, ideal or real or both, toward the end of politics; 3) the classical view, of the endless degenerative cycle. In the extreme case they all may meet up somewhere, or determine each other.

            • bob: some kind of collapse from which some kind of Rome could recover, as neither Republic nor Empire.

              That would pose a challenge for the strong geographical/materialist/determinist view. Was someone destined – at the level of technology generally characteristic of the ancient world – to dominate the known world via a critical position on the Mediterranean? Is there good reason why Italy was likely to take a turn, and at that time, given the predicaments of potential competitors? Could be! That would imply that if Caesar had died in Gaul, sooner or later someone else or some line of lesser Caesars would likely have occupied approximately the same hinge position historically.

              • In the spirit of exploring an idea, could it be that part of the technololgy of Rome was Latin? The density of language in Latin is notable. Ceasar was a/the master of clarity and ecconomy within that.

                If Rome had faltered as Empie earlier, would another Mediterranean power had the rhetoricaltechnology needed to actuate the hinge? Or was Latin an unacknowledged force propelling Rome towards Empire?

  6. (Resuming the above dialogue with bob)

    Amusing idea. I think George Bernard Shaw had ideas along those lines, too, and compared British English to Latin in that way. But you get into a chicken and egg thing. Reduce the empire, and Latin turns into lazy Italian dialects…

    Add this to your concept: I’ve read – don’t know whether it’s true or just a tradition – that Caesar is credited with having invented book-binding. The story goes that he was an avid reader as well as a heavy user of written orders and reports, so came up with the idea of binding scrolls together in sheaves – I guess you’d call ’em – instead of stacking them in leather-bound rolls.

    Then also consider that Cicero at around the same time – or perhaps his favorite secretary/slave – was inventing dictation and shorthand for the purpose of recording and working on his famous speeches.

    So key innovations driven by practical need, realized for world-historical individuals. Necessity mother of invention and all.

  7. Having read Sullust in translation, you can see the republic was already in trouble by the time of the Social Wars, which Mithridates of Pontus, took as an opportunity to precipitate a rebellion, read Adrienne Mayor’s the Poison King for a flavor.

    • Mithridates was quite a fellow. Interesting rendering in this: The Last King: Rome’s Greatest Enemy

      I found Ford’s historical novels quite enjoyable, overall – not as dense as the MASTERS OF ROME novels, but still a fun way to absorb a reasonably detailed and well-informed modern version of the history of the period. Always advisable, of course, to check against more serious work. I think I’ve also mentioned the Robert Harris novels set during the same period, focusing on Cicero – very readable. Fun to compare the re-tellings of the same narratives from vastly different perspectives. You could throw in the HBO ROME series for yet a third fourth modern/post-modern popular version. Something about the ancients never gets old.

Commenter Ignore Button by CK's Plug-Ins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *