Given the polarization of the American political system today, it should come as no surprise that the concept of opposing factions is nothing new. Factions have existed in Western history and literature for thousands of years and, like today, they have often led to gridlock, inaction, and (in extreme cases) political upheaval. With mounting fiscal problems and political parties in deadlock, such effects from such factions might seem dismal for our country. Yet not all is lost! We can learn from some historical and literary successes and apply them to present day infighting and political inaction in order to effect change on Capitol Hill.
Let’s take a quick look at how some conflicting parties in the past overcame their prejudices and personal agendas to solve important problems.
The ancient Greeks are often considered the founders of democracy, so it would be fitting to use a solution crafted by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in order to end the factions in our own political system. In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans raged for twenty-one years, with no clear end in sight. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Lysistrata, an intelligent and independent-minded Athenian woman, concocted a scheme to bring an end to the war and make peace between the warring factions. Her plan was simple: convince the women in the warring factions of Greece to withhold sex from the fighting men until they reached a peace agreement. Lysistrata convened all of the women, and together they seized control of the treasury at Acropolis, barricaded themselves against the men, and refused to bestow their sexual favors upon their husbands. The men were unable to bear the burden of this and, willingly, the two factions signed a treaty to end the war. The men were finally able to go home with their wives and lovers, and peace was restored between both the factions and the sexes.
Unfortunately, the bickering of Congress shows us that factions can arise even without a war fueling their flames. Luckily for us, the medieval Catholic Church has proven that internal factions can also be compelled to compromise. In the thirteenth century, after the death of Pope Clement IV, the cardinals of the Holy See took three years to elect a new pope. This was the longest period of time that the Catholic Church was without a leader. The cardinals of the Sacred College were divided into French and Italian factions, and as a result, they could not achieve the two-thirds majority needed to reach an agreement on a candidate for the papacy. The arguments dragged on endlessly, while the Church lacked a clear sense of direction for the future. In order to compel the cardinals to make their choice, the town of Viterbo sequestered the cardinals within their palace, locked the doors, and removed the roof to expose them to any severe weather. In addition, the cardinals were only allowed a strict diet of bread and water until they reached a decision.
The decision was reached in three days.
Greek comedy and papal problems aside, what would it take for our own government to lay aside partisan interests and work together to achieve solutions and move our country forward? Should we force members of Congress into iron chastity belts that can’t be removed until they reach an agreement? Should we lock them in a roofless Capitol building and feed them only bread and water until they compromise, finally putting aside petty partisan arguments for the good of the country? Perhaps a little “persuasion” would lead to faster, more cooperative decision-making.
Or, if these methods seem too primitive, perhaps we should just start by not raising their salaries.
*Sources include Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the Catholic Encyclopedia, and Princeton University’s website.
By JANINE PERRI ’15