Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Good Sensa

domes, sweet domes

            I had intended to comment on the Middle East fiasco like everybody else, but apparently while I slept Mr. Putin, playing the King’s Syrian Defense, achieved a cunning fianchetto that has for the moment transformed the board, leaving Secretary Kerry dumbfounded by his own prescience, leaving President Obama temporarily grasping a red life-line, leaving the members of Congress undisturbed in their pusillanimity, leaving Mr. Assad in power and in a strengthened position, and leaving Russian influence in the region enhanced: quite an achievement for a single move of a pawn.  So I’d probably better write about the Venetian Republic instead.

            The Republic of Venice endured for a thousand years, expiring in 1797, just as our own was still taking its hesitant toddler’s steps.  We shall before too long have made it to the quarter-mile post, but though I am a patriot and try my best to be an optimist, I must in imagination tremble before the uncertainties of the long three-quarters of the race I shall never see.   As the world becomes more complicated the work of democracy, which we already shirk, becomes ever more demanding.  The possibility of self-destruction sounds melodramatic, but it is in fact a banal reality.  We very nearly tore ourselves apart once before.
            The fifteen minutes of fame of an obscure Michigan representative named Bart Stupak ended on March 21, 2010.   That night the House of Representatives approved H. R. 3590, a motion to concur in the Senate’s amendments to the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (alias ObamaCare),  by a vote of 219 (all Democrats) to 212 (178 Republicans and 34 Democrats).  The country has not had a day of political peace since then.  As for Mr. Stupak, he did not seek reelection, moving on to the “private sector” to become—no prizes for guessing!—a lobbyist.

            Some people, including even some members of Congress, eventually got around to reading the Affordable Care Act within the first three years after its passage, and they were alarmed by various things they discovered there.  House Republicans began the charade of repeated votes to repeal the law.  President Obama was sufficiently alarmed to decide that certain parts of it don’t really count, at least for the time being.

            In a democracy, the majority rules.  The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land.  Were it not for slim majorities, very little would get done.  And in fact very little does get done.  According to one common analysis, the chief engine of “Washington gridlock” is the Senate rule—an extra-constitutional custom, not a law—that in effect requires a sixty percent super-majority for the completion of much important business.   But effective government requires not merely constitutional agency but wisdom—which is, alas, extra-constitutional, and perhaps extra terrestrial.  “He made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his substance,” writes the Psalmist.  “To bind his princes at his pleasure, and teach his senators wisdom.”  But who will teach ours?  The legality of the Affordable Care act has now been resolved according to our system.  But just how wise is it to effect “fundamental transformation” on a party-line vote with a majority of seven out of four hundred and thirty-one?

ceremony of the screwball

            Things were ordered differently in old Venice.  The chief man there was called the doge (as in dux, il duce, or the Duke).  He was the equivalent of our POTUS, except that the civic rituals of Venice were much more interesting than those in Washington.  The President of the United States throws out the first pitch of the baseball season.  Standing on the poop of a magnificently decorated barge, the doge of Venice each Ascension Day (Sensa, in the old Venetian dialect) threw a wedding ring into the Adriatic, thus confirming the marriage of his maritime republic to the waves through which its merchant ships plied their lucrative trade.

 ceremony of the Sensa (by Canaletto)

The office of the doge was elective, but the Venetians chose to dramatize  those elements of whimsy and chance that lie just beneath the surface of all democratic endeavors.  Here is how the ten steps of the election deployed.
¶ 1º, 30 electors were chosen by lot from the Great Council (Concilium Sapientis or Senate), an enclave of the hereditary aristocracy
¶ 2º,  a second lottery chose 9 of that thirty
¶ 3º,  the 9 placed 40 names in nomination
¶ 4º,  twelve of the forty names were chosen by lot and forwarded
¶ 5º,  the chosen 12 nominated 25 candidates
¶ 6º,  from the 25, nine names were chosen by lot
¶ 7º,  these 9 then put 45 names in nomination
¶ 8º,  from the list of 45, eleven names  were chosen by lot
¶ 9º, the eleven appointed 41 electors
¶ 10º  the 41 electors elected a doge.

In several old history textbooks these Venetian protocols were offered up as light relief, curious divagations of the medieval mind unthinkable in modern rationality.  More recently, however, they have been seriously studied by economists and applied mathematicians who note that their consistent tendency is the requirement of a super-majority of at least 61% in the final vote and as much as 81.8% at various earlier stages of election.*  There were no squeakers in ducal elections, only landslides.  Several historians have concluded that the long stability of republican government in Venice, as compared with the notorious and often violent volatility of that in some other Italian civil corporations, is to be explained in part by the hyper-legitimacy of a doge elected by hyper-majority.  Let me remind you: the Venetian Republic did last a thousand years.

*See for example Jay Coggins and C. Federico Perali, “64% Majority Rule in Ducal Venice: Voting for the Doge,” in Public Choice (1998):709-723.