The strange political odyssey of Scott Lee Cohen has come to a close.  See link.  Cohen was the unexpected winner in a political primary for Lt. Governor in a multiple candidate race.  An early entrant into the race he spent lavishly to build early name recognition and eked out a narrow win over the favored candidates.  There is plenty of egg on many faces, and justifiably so.

Cohen made an ambiguous disclosure about a previous battery arrest, but thinking he had no chance to win no media outlet bothered to investigate any of this until he actually won the nomination. None of his opponents or the party  establishment bothered to check Cohen’s shady background either.  Exposes like this abruptly popped up when the media realized that a candidate they failed to vet had actually won.

It is in some ways reminiscent of the 2004 Illinois Senate election when the leading (and relatively unvetted) Democratic candidate Blair Hull was torpedoed a week before the election by disclosures in his divorce file which he tried to avoid.  The Republicans failed to get the divorce file on their winning candidate Jack Ryan until after the primary, leading to a tragicomic farce in their attempts to find a replacement.  That election is notable of course because it saw the rise of one Barack Obama into national politics.

The position of Lt. Governor in Illinois is a cushy job with no responsibilities.  It was amusing to see various candidates in the recent primary promise to bring changes that they have no ability to provide.  There is a legitimate question as to why the position exists at all.  In fact, Illinois like most other states has a surfeit of elected positions.  The general public probably cannot distinguish between the function of comptroller and treasurer at the state level.  At the local level it is a mystery why certain positions like the commissioners for park districts and water districts (and in some states the position of coroner) are subject to elections rather than becoming civil service (and non-patronage) positions that allow experienced people to perform these jobs.  Then there is the issue of judicial elections, which as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has pointed out opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical conflicts while requiring a public to vote on judges they have never heard about and about whom they generally do not bother to take the trouble to read about.

General voter disinterest in the political races at the bottom of the ticket opens the door for the Scott Lee Cohens’ to enter based largely on name recognition or the pull of the party machine.

Direct elections for many of these positions arose from the desire for more democracy in the late 19th and early 20th century.  But it also results in state executive teams that may not be pursuing the same political goals.  It can also make it harder to assign responsibility and blame for the actions of government.  The states may be better served with fewer elected positions at the top (like Governor and Attorney General) with the rest nominated subject to the approval of the legislature.  It could allow for a more coherent functioning of state governments with no doubt as to where the buck comes to a stop.

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The liberium veto is attracting some more attention.  Yglesias disputes Krugman’s contention that the liberium veto and the resulting government nightmare led to the disappearance of Poland as an independent nation.  See link; Also see previous blog articles here and here.  I disagree.  While the decline of Poland-Lithuania had commenced before its invention, the liberium veto made it impossible to reform Poland while its neighbors on east and west were awakening from their slumber.  It is true that the great plains of Eastern Europe do not provide Poland with many barriers from invasion.  However, unlike some other countries Poland had sufficient manpower and geographic depth to overcome this defect.

An example to the contrary would be the coastal strip of Israel-Palestine-Lebanon.  In recent years some opponents of a Palestinan state have used the absence of any Muslim state since the Arab conquest of the region to argue that the Palestinans were not a national entity.  That ignores the unfortunate reality that Christians and Jews have struggled to establish viable independent states in the same region.  Sandwiched between Egypt and Syria (and occassional erruptions from Babylon-Mesepotamia), each with significantly greater resources of manpower and wealth, independent states in the region have historically had to rely on weakness of its neighbors or significant assistance from abroad.  A survey of the four independent states to rule the region shows why.

The biblical kingdom of David and Solomon flourished at a time when Pharaonic  Egypt was in deep decline and the Hittite Empire on the other flank had long since dissolved.  The weakness became evident shortly after Solomon’s death when a revived Egypt under Sheshonk I would humble Solomon’s successors.  The twin Kingdoms of Judea and Israel would survive, but would have to pay tribute to the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians until their destruction.

The second independent Jewish state of the Hasmoneans emerged as the Hellenistic successor states of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria were in decline.  Even then, the Hasmoneans would not obtain independence until the Seleucid state dissolved into civil war after the death of Antiochus VII.  Independence would be extinguished by the Romans a century later.

The third independent states in the region were the Crusader states of Outremer formed after the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem.  The First Crusade was aided my the tumult in Islamic Syria following the Seljuk invasion and the weakened state of Fatimid Egypt.  Outremer was extremely reliant on continued immigration from Western Europe, particularly landless younger sons of the nobility to provide a manpower for its army.  Once Syria started to consolidate under Zengi and Egypt and Syria were united under Saladin, Outremer was doomed.  Understanding this inherent defect, many of the crusades following the Third Crusade were targeted at Egypt (which had a large native Christian population).

Which brings up the current states of Israel and Lebanon.  Israel has benefited from superior organization in its early years, heavy immigration of European Jewry and immense amounts of American military aid.  This has helped it overcome its exposed strategic situation.  In contrast Lebanon has been for most of its history a Syrian satellite.

Poland never faced similar issues of viability.  Its wounds were self inflicted.  For example Poland disappeared as a single entity for about 200 years when Boleslaw III Wrymouth chose to divide the country among his four sons after his death in 1138 (a succession policy similar to the one that contributed to the fragmentation of the German principalities next door).  Yet the concept of a Polish nation and the title “Duke/King of Poland” would survive until the reconstitution of the Polish state 200 years later.  After its union with Lithuania, during the reign of Casimir IV Poland-Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  Hardly the mark of an inherently doomed state.

If Poland had an exposed geographical frontier, so did every other European state except England. Read the rest of this entry »

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