Friday, November 2, 2012

So you've lost the election...

Imagine for a minute that it's Wednesday, November 7 and the other guy -the one who will most assuredly bring about the downfall of all that is good and right in the world and lead us at a frantic sprint into a new Dark Age- has won. Frankly, you don't even want to get out of bed, because after all what's the point? All your energy and all your passion poured into the last few months (heck, who are you kidding: years) has been for naught. Not that you would ever think the word "naught", because it's not the 1920s... How can you possibly face a future under the dictatorial fist of that guy? Fear not, good citizen, for I have news that will hopefully add a little ray of sunshine to your overcast political world.

This doesn't have to be true.
You live in America.

Now, before you think I'm going all jingoistic on you and about to bang the "America=God's beloved child" drum, hear me out. I am not saying that you should be cheerful because you live in some sort of holy promised land. I'm not even saying that you should be cheerful because you live in a nation that enjoys a good deal of material prosperity- though of course that second point is something that we should all remember. Whoever wins on November 6, we will still likely have food on the table on November 7 (I suppose excluding those who hunger strike in protest). But there is another much more political reason you should be encouraged:

The American political system is designed for you, the loser.

I'll say that again because it is worth repeating:
the American political system is designed for those who lose elections.

It's like America is looking into a mirror.

Let me hit you with some knowledge. The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates scrapped the Articles and replaced them with a new governing document: the Constitution. But why did they do that? What your high school history textbook will tell you is that it was because the national government provided for by the Articles was too weak and did not include an executive or judiciary. Which is true, but which does not tell you why that mattered. After all, it's not as if there was no government in the nation- we hadn't quite progressed to the "Thunderdome" stage of civilizational decline. There were thirteen functioning and stable governments spread from New Hampshire to Georgia (fourteen if we count the Vermont Republic), all of which were as close to pure democracies as the nation has seen before or since. Even more than that, the economy was booming, the undesirables (Royalists) were leaving the nation in droves and the "good" kind of immigration (skilled, educated labor) was at an all time high. Why on earth did people freak out and write -to say nothing of accept- a completely new form of government?

The answer is found in a less-famous part of Madison's famous Federalist 10, where he points out that in a pure democracy:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. 
In other words, the problem with a democracy is that the majority will always eventually trample on the rights of the minority or even of the individual.
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Democracies quickly destroy property rights, personal security, public peace, and, ultimately, themselves. The majority will trample on the minority until society itself crumbles and falls.

Try to be on Denzel's side when this happens. Trust me on this.

The point of the Constitution is to offset this tendency. The American system is designed in such a way that no single faction -not even a majority- can utterly dominate the others.

Which is all well and good, but here's the real kicker- you have a part to play in keeping the winner of the election from steamrolling you. The authors of the Constitution did not expect the majority to exercise self-restraint and not trample the minority because someone said "pretty-please don't do it," instead, they applied the idea of checks-and-balances.

Again, your high school civics book would have talked some about this, what it wouldn't have mentioned is how revolutionary an idea this was for the time. What everyone believed in during the 18th century was separation of powers. There's an executive power, a legislative power, and some other kind of power (probably judicial, maybe something called "federative" to deal with foreign relations, but no one was really sure), and none of these powers of government should be allowed to overlap. That way, the argument went, the executive can't pass laws and the legislature can't enforce them, therefore no single person (executive) or group of persons (legislature) could ever gather together all political power in society.

The judicial branch was less of a threat for obvious reasons.
The Constitution (inspired by the Framers' reading of an obscure Frenchman named Montesquieu) tore down several of these "walls of separation" between the branches of government and enable them to "check" and "balance" each other. That is, they gave executive and judicial powers to the legislature (confirming cabinet members and establishing courts and jurisdiction, as examples); legislative and judicial powers to the executive (the veto and the ability to appoint judges); and, well, they didn't think much about the judicial branch, but you get the point. This enabled each branch of government to use the powers it had been given from the other branch to act as a check and balance if it thought that other branch was going to far. So Andrew Johnson pardons the whole South after the Civil War? Not on Congress's watch: boom! Impeachment. The Supreme Court keeps shooting down FDR's New Deal programs? He appoints judges that agree with him. And so on. Each branch of government has the ability not only to be a royal pain the rear to the other branch, but to slow down or stop the entire political process, depending on how opposed they really are.

And if all of that isn't enough, the Federalist conclusion to this process of being able to oppose someone even though they have more power than you: this act of opposition is what actually makes good policy.

The source of all that is right and good in America.
If the President could just step into office and get whatever policy he wanted passed the result would be the will of the majority, but not necessarily the best policy- and it would ignore all of those who are in the minority. Which of course was the whole problem with the Articles of Confederation in the first place. To fix this, the system is designed so that a very small number of people in any one of the branches of government can throw a wrench into the whole works. The result of their doing so is a better policy than the mere will of the majority. Federalist 52 says:
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others... This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. 
 When minority factions exercise their ability to gum up the works, what happens is that the blind spots and defects of the majority faction are balanced out, and a better policy than either side could have ever thought of by itself becomes the law of the land. So when the Republicans filibuster Obama's healthcare plan or the Democrats vote against Bush's, well, whatever (sorry, it's been a few years), the result is that the majority faction gets less than it originally wanted, the minority faction gets more than it could ever get in a pure democracy, and the nation as a whole benefits since a solution that neither side would have settled for on its own is reached.

This runs pretty counter to the way we tend to think as Americans. We want our guy to get into office and kick butt and take names while riding his white horse into the glorious implementation of the tax cuts/defeat of our enemies/education reform.
Not pictured: Education Reform
We don't like to think that maybe one person's or even one party's plan (especially our own) may not be the best for the nation. How else can we explain the frustration with Presidents Bush and Obama, who all told (though Obama has only had four years at this point) managed to get only a very small number of the programs and laws they had promised actually put in place. Partially, of course, this is a result of campaign promises being unrealistic in any case. But in much larger sense as long as there is one Congressman, one Senator, one Supreme Court Justice, who differs ideologically from the President (to say nothing of being in a different party), the President will never get everything he wants, and that minority ideology/party/faction will never be completely overrun by the majority. The same is true for Congress and the Supreme Court. In America the opposing (i.e. the losing) faction is given power out of proportion to its numbers. This is not an accident, it is built into the very nature of our system.

The point of this lengthy post is just to say that whoever wins next Tuesday does not automatically become the King of America for four years. In fact, it just defines our various roles within the system. If Romney wins, then the Democrats are obligated to throw every wrench they can find into his policy proposals with full confidence that they are doing exactly what they should be doing. Likewise if Obama wins a second term, Republicans should continue to do everything they can to torpedo his policies and slow the whole system down. The American system is designed to protect and empower losers, which means that come what may next week gloom and doom should not be your worldview- you should be ready to take up the Constitutional role prepared for you.

The short version: this man will always be able to screw things up for everyone.



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