Great Expectations: The Origins of American Political Dissatisfaction

utopiaI had the misfortune of sitting next to a woman at the bar last night whose view of the upcoming election exemplifies all that I am about to discuss below. She was probably in her mid-70s, and clearly well-to-do. She let it slip that she now lived in Beverly Hills and had moved recently from Rancho Mirage, both very upscale neighborhoods. She and the bartender began talking about how things were going to change dramatically once Trump won the presidency. They then asked me where I was from and when I said Ohio they got very excited and said, “Well, you better make sure you vote right!” I just smiled and tried not to engage but the woman was on her second glass of wine and would not have it. I had only had one and a half beers and had been sitting there longer than her. She said, “Go on! Who ya gonna vote for? Not that other creature?!” I then tried to explain that I would not be voting in Ohio because I was now local to Portland, Oregon. She then suggested that I should vote by absentee ballot in Ohio and also vote in Oregon. For some reason she seemed to think that I was a Trump supporter. Again, I just smiled and took another sip of my Heineken.

Eventually, both her and the bartender tried to wrangle my political position from me–the bartender desperately close to losing the modest tip I had planned to give him. I then confessed that I did not think it would matter much who got elected because most of what they each proposed would never get done because of the way our federal government was structured. The woman next to me working on her third sheet got upset and said, “No. No! Trump will really change things! I believe that! He’s a great businessman and he knows how to knock heads together to get things done!” It was at this point that the bartender rescued me, asking if I wanted another round and why I was in Portland. I was glad the topic had changed and showed my appreciation later on with a 20% tip.

I have a theory. I believe that the reason we appear to have a dysfunctional federal government is because people no longer have a basic understanding of how our “separate but equal” branches of government work together to get things done–or, in the case of the modern era, don’t get much done at all.

In the last eight years the most dramatic change that’s occurred at the federal level was the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). However, this act was passed by a razor thin margin in Congress and has been hobbled by Republican opposition its whole short life. What is even less radical is that the law mandates personal health insurance through private companies and provides government subsidies for policies people can’t afford on their own. In short, it is a multi-billion dollar subsidy provided to private insurance and drug companies. I will not debate here whether it is succeeding or failing. I honestly don’t know, and I’m not too sure I care since it always appeared to me as a very expensive band-aid for a problem that can only be solved by the implementation of a national health system, probably best administered at the state level but largely federally funded.

That said I think the problem we have with our national politics today is the belief that any one election can be an election for radical change. I cannot personally subscribe to this belief. It is not borne out by the experience of the last 80 years, and I think it defies simple common sense to think that any one person elected to office during peace time, and during a humdrum economic climate, can effect radical change in our federal system.

What people seem to forget is that our federal government was purposely set up to make change difficult–if not often impossible. While there have been periods in which great changes have been effected, one cannot talk about these changes without reference to wars or widespread populist agitation, usually rooted in some socio-economic upheaval. However, even during wartime and periods of populist agitation there has to be a coalition of people, politicians, and sometimes intellectuals, that make radical change possible. In other words, electing a president who wants to do X, Y, and/or Z is not enough to effect great change. The most you can hope for in a system like ours is placing impediments in the way of what you don’t want changed, which is exactly what our federal government has excelled at for years.

There is a belief among some of those who support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton that the election of either of these people will fundamentally change the country. Trump supporters seem to be more apt to say apocalyptic things like “This is the last election if Hillary gets elected because the country we once knew will be gone forever.” While it may be uncharitable to say, this view seems to me to be more rooted in the white fear of a browning America than with any particular issue, either social or economic. Any apocalyptic visions the right and left may entertain about either candidate should be viewed as simple political hysteria brought on by a lack of understanding when it comes to basic civics.

Whether you agree or not with me about the issues, there is one thing that simply cannot be denied: the next person who occupies the Oval Office will be constrained by Congress, the federal purse, and the Constitution. Of course, some already believe the present occupant of the White House has stretched the limits of his Constitutional powers; however, any clear-cut violation of the lines that separate the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would be quickly defended by each branch. Yes, Barack Obama has pushed the envelope–as have many imperial presidents before him–but any clear violation would have gotten push-back, probably even from people in his own party. One example of that was the growing opposition of some Democrats to Obama’s executive order on immigration, an order that was later quashed in federal court. Isn’t this how it’s suppose to work? Yes. Does it always work? No. Remember “enhanced interrogation”?

I’m not saying that Donald or Hillary will not be able to act at all, but they are going to be pretty limited. Supreme Court nominations will be one area of influence but this will be blunted by the Senate, especially if there is not a filibuster-proof majority against the minority party–not likely this time around. There is also no hope of repealing Obamacare. Senate Democrats will stop Republican efforts in Congress, and Hillary would veto any legislation that got through a Republican-controlled Congress. Tax reform is also not likely since Trump will never get $10 trillion in tax cuts approved by Congress. Hillary’s tax plan will also not get serious consideration from a Republican-controlled House. Foreign policy-wise both might be able to do some interesting things but probably not much that would differ from what we are doing now. Most of the action would probably be around the fringes and consist mostly of bluster.

In short, the great expectations we place on any one federal election ignores the fact that unless all three branches of government are controlled by the same party, and that party has a strong mandate in the country, then nothing radical ever gets done, except during a time of war or great social/economic upheaval. While some might argue that we are at war with Islamic terrorists the truth is that this is more of a “police action” than a war. This “war” has not called for huge changes in the way we live everyday. As for the economy, we have had a case of the blahs ever since 2010. However, the economic blahs are simply not enough to get a majority of people on-board for radical change. 

So, whether you support Trump or Hillary don’t delude yourself into thinking that great change is coming. It’s not. If you want true change you would probably be better served to look to your local and state governments. Better yet, look to yourself, your friends, and your family. Work together with those closest to you to effect great change. It may be the only real change you will experience after the vote is counted on November 8th.

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