Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Presidential Bread and Circuses

We are already several months into the process of selecting the next President of the United States, and we've barely started. We've got another nearly ten months of yelling, screaming, and flamboyant nonsense ahead of us before, in November, we finally choose who gets to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. This process will be THE topic of conversation in the United States for the rest of the year.

There's only one problem: none of it matters. We're devoting almost all of our attention to the least important aspect of our national political system.

Put another way, Presidential elections have become the bread and circuses of our time.

This is a contrarian argument, given that we are told every four years that "this is the election that will define our era". Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been dead for less than 24 hours when pundits began pontificating about how the court vacancy "dramatically raises the stakes" of the election. Donald Trump, who gets more airtime than the rest of the field combined, has repeatedly claimed that everything is terrible.

I've written recently about how a lot of this fear-mongering is patent nonsense. I mentioned in that post that the Presidency is not nearly as powerful as we think it is - that Presidents have to answer to Congress and to a variety of powerful interests, and that the world often stubbornly does what it wants to do despite their thundering proclamations otherwise.

But this is only part of the issue. The larger issue is one I've made reference to from time to time, and which is contained in this article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Their bottom line (taken directly from the article itself):

The estimated impact of average citizenspreferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level [when controlling for the impact of economic elites and interest groups]. Clearly the median citizen or median voterat the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. 
The data to reach this conclusion were compiled by looking at policy outcomes over nearly 1800 different policy issues for slightly more than 20 years (1981-2002). This is not an issue merely with particular issues like gun control, where policy seems to stubbornly cling to a particular line despite popular views otherwise. The conclusion Gilens & Page reach is that, taken as an independent force on policy outcomes, popular opinion matters not at all.

The period of time they studied included both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and Congresses controlled by each party and divided between them. Whether we put Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or anyone else in the White House next year, this pattern is not going to significantly change.
To be fair, Trump and Sanders in their own way appear to be the only candidates who make even oblique reference to this issue. Sanders promises a "revolution" to overturn the existing system, though it's not clear how he intends to do that. Trump has no apparent plan to change anything other than to replace "losers" with "winners" - though where the spoils of such "winning" would go is anybody's guess.
If the Gilens & Page analysis is correct - and I believe that it is - then arguing about whether Rubio is better than Kasich, or even whether Hillary is better than Cruz, is entirely irrelevant. Yes, Presidents bring certain tendencies with them that can marginally nudge things in one direction or another. But none of this changes the fundamental character of the system. It just doesn't matter.

Look at this another way: changing from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (a pretty wide ideological swing from one President to another) did not significantly alter the general trend towards the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few. If that change didn't matter, why do we expect a different result this time?

I have no doubt that this view might anger a few people. We want to believe that what we see in front of us is meaningful. We want to think that our choice of candidate is consequential - after all, the candidates and the media all tell us that it is. Moreover, we have such a wide range of choices this year that it's easy to find some that we like a lot, some we sort of tolerate, and some we can't stand. There's something satisfying about that.

This is not to say that people shouldn't develop candidate preferences, or that they shouldn't care about who wins the Presidency. It does suggest that they shouldn't care too much, which is to say very much at all, nor should they expect the outcome to have a substantial impact on either their own fortunes or the fortunes of our country. If what we seek is real change that broadly and systemically alters the direction of the country and the welfare of the population as a whole, we need to stop paying attention to blowhards standing behind podiums at debates and start paying attention to ourselves and each other.

1 comment:

  1. Wow-- I disagree with you for once. I love the Page and Gilens research, but the change from GWB to Obama did alter important policies that were not necessarily about the accumulation of wealth and power. It sure matters to the people who now have health insurance. If GHWB and Bob Dole had won elections in the 1990's, it would matter to the gay people who would not have the right to marry. I suspect we can agree that the Iraq War does not happen if Al Gore had been president (but for a few hundred votes in Florida). Did that affect the accumulation of wealth and power? Nope. Was it hugely important for our country? Yes. It matters to people whose lungs really depend upon reasonably clean air. I think you are simply setting too high a bar with, "real change that broadly and systemically alters the direction of the country and the welfare of the population as a whole." Modest, non-systematic change, can make a huge difference in millions of lives for the better or worse.