The Roman Empire and the United State of America: A Senate Divided

“Et tu Brute?” Over 2000 years ago Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was killed on the Senate floor. Over 60 Roman Senators stabbed Caesar because he was their political opponent and did not support their political ideology. 2000 years later the same opposition and disagreement exists in the United States Senate; Republicans and Democrats cornered against one another in a battle for political control. These disagreements have not led to murder, but they have caused many heated arguments and brought a halt to the political process. Dysfunction in the Senate was the main topic in Ira Shapiro and Tom Mann’s lecture “Can Politics be Fixed?” Shapiro and Mann talked for over an hour to an estimated 50 people in the Maxwell Auditorium on Friday. The two men gave the second State of Democracy Lecture of the spring semester.

Tom Mann is a congressional scholar and author. He currently works for the Brookings Institute (“Thomas E. Mann, 2013, para. 1). In May he published the book “Its Even worse than it looks,” which examines how extremism in the current government has brought the political process to a screeching halt.

Ira Shapiro is an international trade lawyer. For over thirty years he served as a senior staff member for the U.S. Senate General Council and was a member of the Clinton administration. In March he published the book ”The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis.” The book is a narrative history on the1960’s-1970’s U.S. Senate (Biography, 2013, para. 1).

Shapiro began the lecture with a discussion of why he was motivated to write his recent book. He said that after the 2008 election the Senate became paralyzed by “party polarization.” He wanted to write a book about a time when the Senate was truly great. Shapiro decided to write about the Senate in the 1960’s and 1970’s because “ during a time of war, the civil rights movement and political assassination the Senate stepped up and was at the center of everything.”

Shapiro said the Senate 40 years ago believed it was “suppose to take collective action, straight party voting didn’t really happen because the parties weren’t as far apart.” While he alluded to this period as the golden age of the Senate, he also said the Senate began to fall apart after the election of President Reagan in 1980. “The giants were replaced by new arrivals” and ever since, the Senate has been in gradual decline. He is referring to the replacement of moderate Senators with more extremists. An example of this would be Idaho Senator Frank Church’s loss to Senator Steve Symms in 1981 (Miller, 1985, para. 3-5).

Shapiro said the Senate today permanently campaigns and is completely divided by partisan politics. Shapiro finished his discussion telling the crowd that he was unusually optimistic that the current Senate can improve. He did not explain why he felt this way until the question and answer part of the discussion

Tom Mann began his section of the lecture explaining his personal philosophy on political science. He said that he tries to “remove himself from immediate politics” and write a non-partisan objective view of the Senate. Mann joked that if he had to write a third volume of his book “The Broken Branch” it would be titled “Run for your Life” or “535 Shades of Grey.”

Mann agreed with Shapiro that extremists have ruined the Senate. He said “for the first time in our nation’s history the approval rate of Congress fell into the single digits, which

Senator McCain attributes to relatives and paid staff.” Mann said today the opposition party just works for government failure. They try to stop all action with the use of the filibuster.

He compared the dysfunction of the current government to the Gilded Age and the Senate during the War of 1812.

Mann said the current “legislative process has turned into strategic game not to solve a problem, but improve position for next election to strengthen your hand.” Mann talked about how the current Congress now resembles something of a parliamentary system. All of the party members vote together, but the institutions are not in place to control the government and ensure that resolutions get passed.

Mann then talked about the recent shift in the Republican members of the Congress. He said the rise of the Tea Party or other libertarian movements is comparable to the shift in the Democratic base in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He went so far to call the radical Republican members of Congress an “insurgent outlier” that is “dismissive of the positions of political opposition.” Mann said that if the Republican Party does not bring the base back to the middle before the 2016 election more Republican members of Congress will loose their seats and for the third time in a row a Democrat will be elected President.

After the two initial talks Shapiro and Mann answered questions from both the audience as well as Political Science Professor Grant Reeher and Public Administration and International Affairs Professor Len Burman. The two men answered over ten questions that ranged from who is the next Republican Presidential nominee to what are the major problems with the current tax system.

One of the more interesting questions was “why are you optimistic about the future of the Senate and what will it take to improve.” Shapiro referred to the Beatles song “It can’t get Much Worse.” He said that the current Senate could only improve. With such a low approval ratings he is sure voters will elect different people who can get things done. Shapiro said that the Republican Party must become more moderate and adjust to the popular beliefs in the country.

Mann said that there are gleams of hope in the current Senate, “where bipartisan cluster of groups are working together to solve specific problems” such as immigration and gun control. The biggest thing needed to improve Congress he said is “capable people that are not ideological zealots.” “There is no real substitute for character with our leaders.”

Tom Mann and Ira Shapiro combined have over 50 years of experience studying politics. They presented an examination of the current Congress in an interesting fashion. They contextualized our current problems to similar issues throughout American history. They told jokes during the lecture and actively engaged the audience. Both men agreed on most points and presented a similar optimistic about the future of the United States. The large amount of knowledge both men possess on various policy issues and the history of United States political system was astonishing.

Some parts of the lecture were complicated. When they discussed tax policy, the talk was somewhat hard to follow. These men live and breath politics and this comes with a specific knowledge of issues that some of the audience members did not have. There were some things such as certain tax entitlements that they could have explained in greater detail. Overall the lecture was very good. Their use of narrative and humor made an historical examination of policy very interesting.