On the Polish Analogy

Last week after Senator Shelby, Republican of Alabama, shocked the sensibilities of the nation by placing a hold on some 70 executive nominations, Paul Krugman penned a short note comparing our dysfunctional Senate to Polish Sejm of yore.

Here's Krugman's brief historical overview:

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish legislature, the Sejm, operated on the unanimity principle: any member could nullify legislation by shouting “I do not allow!” This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century.

This drew a response from Matt Yglesias of Think Progress who suggested that Poland's (technically, it was the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth) problem in the late 18th century was more a factor that the country was nestled between Russia and Prussia.

Yglesias is wrong; Krugman is right but incomplete. While Poland's location did play a part in its demise, it was the country's lack of strong institutions that played the more significant role in Poland's failure to prevent its partition. While Poland's neighbors were able to build centralized fiscal-military states, Poland was not.

Poland was the largest country in Europe from about 1300 until the onset of the Swedish wars in the 1655. It was these wars, collectively called the Deluge and which lasted until 1721, that debilitated the Polish state (Warsaw's population in 1725 was just 20% of what it had been in 1650) and set the stage for the series of three partitions that erased Poland from the map between 1772 and 1794.

It is true that Poland's geography, not just its location but the fact that the country is a flat hard to defend plain, made it ripe for invasion. Nonetheless, Poland had historically been able to fend off successive foreign invaders including the Mongols (three times), the Teutonic Knights, and the Russians without much difficulty before 1650. The country, however, had a harder time throwing off the Swedes. This was due to the introduction of the Liberum Veto in 1652 just three years before the start of the seven decade on and off war with Sweden.

The Liberum Veto was a manifestation of the great freedoms enjoyed by the Polish nobility. One vote could block the enactment of any bill in the Polish Parliament known as the Sejm. It was the legal right of each member of the Sejm to defeat by his vote alone any measure under consideration or to dissolve the Sejm and nullify all acts passed during its session.

Based on the assumption that all members of the Polish nobility were absolutely equal politically, the Liberum Veto meant, in practice, that every bill introduced into the Sejm had to be passed unanimously. The political system found itself in a prolonged crisis that prevented Poland from developing a fiscal-military state, the model that allowed other European countries to wage war and defend themselves. The paralysis that enveloped the Polish state made it easy prey for rising powers who had developed centralized fiscal-militarty states to take advantage of Poland's weakness.

Paul Krugman today argues that America is not yet lost but points to the problem of increasing ungovernability:

Much of the Senate’s business relies on unanimous consent: it’s difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure. And a tradition has grown up under which senators, in return for not gumming up everything, get the right to block nominees they don't like.

In the past, holds were used sparingly. That's because, as a Congressional Research Service report on the practice says, the Senate used to be ruled by "traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation." But that was then. Rules that used to be workable have become crippling now that one of the nation's major political parties has descended into nihilism, seeing no harm — in fact, political dividends — in making the nation ungovernable.

The modern Republican party will drive the nation into the sea. It does not matter whether it is in power or out of power. In power the GOP enables a predatory capitalism leading an assault on the nation's Treasury for private interests. Just take the Bush-Cheney Energy policy as one example. There the GOP provided its patrons in the oil & gas, coal and nuclear industries with over $28 billion in public subsidies. Considering that these sectors spend $115 million lobbying, that is not a bad return on investment but it comes out of your pocket and it goes against the national interest. Out of power, the GOP seeks to delay and derail any and all Democratic proposals by hook or by crook effectively rendering government inoperable. The GOP's approach to governance rivals a Shermanian March burning every sound proposal on the pyre of irrational obstructionism. For partisan gain, they are willing to destroy the country.

The evolution of the GOP since the 1950s has been a bizarre descent into the politics of failure. They are wedded to a free market ideology that has never really worked for a majority of Americans - theirs is an ideology that puts the individual before the interests of society - and yet when confronted with free market failure, they ignore it. Their solution is to double down on it arguing perversely that the reason for such failure is that we haven't fully deregulated or lowered taxes enough to unleash the creativity of the marketplace.

But there's one aspect of the evolution of the GOP that doesn't get the attention that it merits. Whereas most political parties tend towards introspection and policy revision after electoral failure, that's not the case with the GOP. The party has effectively been captured by the most radical elements of the conservative movement. On the social conservative side, the GOP is a front for an uncompromising white Christian nationalism that sees itself besieged. While on the economic conservative side, it is an increasingly uneasy alliance between free market ideologues and monopolistic corporate interests. And then there are the national security conservatives who represent the interests the military-industrial complex and who seem to put Israel's security interests ahead of our own. Each of these groups are certain in their politics. There isn't much room for debate within the GOP much less for compromise. Over time, these forces have combined to make the GOP an ever-more conservative party.

Since 1960, electoral defeat for GOP has largely engendered an ever more conservative party: Nixon's 1960 defeat leads to Goldwater in 1964, the centrist Ford's narrow loss in 1976 opens the way for conservative Reagan in 1980, the somewhat more centrist GHW Bush's loss in 1992 brought a somewhat less centrist Dole in 1996 and Dole's defeat begat GW Bush in 2000. It is not a stretch to suggest that whoever the GOP nominee is 2012, that individual will be far to the right of John McCain.


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great post


by John DE 2010-02-08 11:44PM | 0 recs
Great post

and thanks for the history lesson on Poland.  Any country that could fend off the Mongols (x3, as you said), should be read up more carefully.  


Any thoughts on whether distance may have been a factor as well...in preventing the Mongols from invading Poland.  The terrain between Poland and Central Asia is not exactly a bed of roses...

by Ravi Verma 2010-02-09 12:39AM | 0 recs
RE: Great post

Well the argument that the Mongols ran out of steam is fair and no doubt the further west they went the more sedentary and established states they encountered. Even so the Mongols overran northern India, the Burmese empire and the Persians but failed to conquer Poland.

I didn't mention but it was a Polish army in 1685 that saved Europe when the Ottoman Turks were at the Gates of Vienna. Otherwise we might all be Muslims today.

Still, I think Paul Krugman is over doing the analogy. No doubt, Poland then faced and US now faces flawed institutional design. In Poland's case it led to the partition of the country. In our case, it is more likely to lead to a break-up.


by Charles Lemos 2010-02-09 02:51AM | 0 recs
RE: Great post

I should dig this up, but I do recall that the great Khan (Genghis) did send out an army towards Poland, on 2 separate occassions if I still have my memory intact, and had to pull back on both occassions because he was distracted by something else. 

On both occassions the distractions were in the form of rebellions in other regions which he could have ignored, but chose not to...because it came from individuals that he felt had really betrayed him.  On the first occassion, I believe the rebellion was timed to occur when Genghis had sent his army towards central Europe...not a coincidence, I believe.

Somewhat a case of Poland getting lucky. 


by Ravi Verma 2010-02-09 01:43PM | 0 recs
I can only add to the above judgments.

This is one of the best analyses of our present governmental connudrums and the GOP that I have read. Thanks.

by MainStreet 2010-02-09 06:39AM | 0 recs


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