Why elections result in little change

It seems that we go through the same liturgy every two years requiring us to believe in the democratic process. As the candidates orate, our hopes of change are magnified until our expectations outrun their performance.

To restrain our disgust, we need to take a realistic look at the nature of our government and accept the consequences.

As stated before, Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, warned the country about the inertia built in the system so that most campaign rhetoric is meaningless. It’s a big spuff.

Hamilton’s insights

Hamilton was a man of action, even mumbling at times about creating a kingship that could move the nation forward. He realized early on that the United States was locked in “status quo” system.

The American policy system is not designed to solve problems. Hamilton observed that we have designed a government with checks and balances to prevent anything bad from happening but it also prevents good from happening.

Status quo is good for everyone who has it made but not for those struggling at the bottom who need a helping hand. They will be in the pit for generations. In fact, they are in the pit for generations and we do little to lift them up.

Unachievable consensus

In the first place, nothing in our system facilitates change. Being a constitutional government with delegated powers, change can only be achieved through a consensus of three branches of government. The status quo problem first appears in the legislative process.

In The Hoover Press, Terry Moe defines the problem concisely:

“….policy making takes place within a political subsystem of checks and balances, the effect of which is to make new legislation very difficult to achieve. Typically, a bill must make it past subcommittees, committee votes and floor votes in each house of the legislature (Congress); it must be approved in identical form by each; it is threatened along the way by parliamentary roadblocks (such as filibusters, holds, and voting rules);

Many veto points

“and if it gets past these hurdles, it can still be vetoed by the executive. For a group to get a favored policy enacted into law, then, it must win political victories at each and every step along the way, which is quite difficult. Opponents of change need to succeed at just one of the many veto points in order to win.”

Now comes the campaign rhetoric in which candidates claim to have solutions for problems, paying little regard to a system that is not designed to solve problems.

The best a candidate can honestly do is offer to be one of 100 Senators or one of 435 Congressmembers in the policy process who will throw his/her small weight one way or the other.

Promises win

So the demagogues rise to the occasion and promise that they will not only “try” but they will “do.” So following the Pied Piper, we are thrilled by the candidate who is going to get it done.

As a consequence, our political campaigns consist of overpromising in a system that can’t deliver. So after a year or two of watching the great promiser we realize that little is going to happen without a complete sweep (1965) of the executive and legislative branches.

So let’s not condemn the politicians for lying when the truth is that the system is designed not to work. Alexander Hamilton has given us 250 years to think about it.


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