At the risk of Eric Garlanding this, I’m going to share my Theory of Why Everything Sucks Politically at the National and Therefore Because They’re Only Subdivisions of the National Government the State Levels.
If you haven’t already, you’ll likely want to mute.
The basic problem is we, the people. But it’s not the way a lot of people now tend to think of that statement.
A Republic, being somewhat-but-not-entirely democratic in nature, relies on the people making the first decision — whom to elect — also being the people who make the intermediate decision — to pay attention, and the final decision — to re-elect or not.
To have a functioning republic means something that a lot of the folks criticizing nation-building in Iraq conveniently remembered at the time and forgot as soon as Bush left office: You must have a civil society as the bedrock and the buttresses.
Civil society is how a free people organize themselves outside of government. Government is not what we do together; civil society is what we do together. It is churches and volunteer organizations and families and clubs and sports leagues and neighborhoods that communicate.
When people gather together this way, they build up shared affection and bonds, and they talk, and they come to conclusions together or — having heard from someone outside their own skulls — individually.
When we do this, we are stronger for it. We are not forced to join these things, but Man, being a social animal (yes, animal, sorry, it’s an actual term) tends to crave these things and learn and grow from them.
We reinforce and expand upon shared notions of decency and morality, wisdom and cleverness, good and evil, and so on; and we are better-equipped to deal with the complexities of life and each other.
One of my great complaints about the immigration debates is that we tend to see everything through sepia-colored lenses, with happy scoundrels playing baseball in city streets while hardworking men and women eked out a cheery but hard existence in love with America.
This overlooks the ethnic riots, the assassinations, the love of socialism (then charmingly called anarchy), the masses of people who came for work and went back, the masses of people kidnapped and basically stuck here, etc.
Similarly, our view of the Founders’ time is one where a bunch of dudes in powdered wigs and tights all pointed melodramatically and had intense debates and life was solidly middle class except for the curious absence of cell phones and tablets.
In fact, the middle class was reasonably educated, and everything below was not. This is why the franchise was restricted: The people who founded this Nation believed that if you weren’t educated and had a stake in society (and male and white and…), your vote was dangerous.
The male and white parts are silly, the age restrictions up for debate, but the points about education and a stake in society have merit. This is because people with education and a stake in society tend to work and play and speak together.
People with these characteristics — educated, literate, with a vested interest, and in touch with their fellow humans — make for good small-r republican citizens precisely because they care about governance and tend to act that way.
This combination of socially-constructed and grafted-on virtues means that even when bad men are elected to office, they are constrained by the attention of the men who put them there; if they collude to oppress the voters, the voters will see it coming and rise up.
This is fairly elementary. It’s also more or less completely lost on our day-to-day lives now.
How you got Trump is how you got Obama is how you got Bush is how you got Clinton. Policy has become less important, and the President’s roles as Champion and King have grown, as the populace has become worse at being republican citizens.
‘With whom would you like to have a beer” and “cares about people like me” are absolutely awful bases for deciding who one’s elected representatives should be, but they have been increasingly important criteria.
It reduces the complex concerns of governance — are the rights of the majority or minority being trampled? at what cost? will this improve the economy and therefore the rest of our financial lives or make it worse? is this enrichment at public expense? etc. — to snapshots.
A similar but not identical concern avails at the Congressional and Senate levels, where it’s either about Who Will Fight the Enemy’s Champion or Who Will Send Federal Funds Our Way?
The problems this kind of thinking creates are not trivial and not few. The biggest is the detachment of governance from the governed and the elected governors.
It’s going to look like I’m shifting (or losing) focus, but bear with me, again assuming you haven’t muted.
I would argue that the biggest problem is our day-to-day governance is ultimately a complete abdication of responsibility by the elected branches. This is one of my hobbyhorses, so you may want to skip ahead of this part, too.
On paper, here is our system of governance:
Congress is elected, at the popular district level, by an enormous number of people in theoretically but not really geographically compact areas; and then by popular vote in irregular shaped states.
Congress is Article I of the Constitution because it is the most important. It controls the gathering and outlay of funds (the be-all and end-all of any government); it writes the laws and may even override the Executive to do so; and may remove anyone from any other Branch.
Any war or treaty — the biggest foreign policy commitments possible — must be approved by Congress. Trade between and through the several states (one short of the be-all and end-all) is governed entirely by Congress. It is the biggest of big dogs.
The President is elected by the Electoral College, who are in turn elected by the people of the several states. He oversees the Executive Branch, and is directly responsible for seeing the laws executed, which often involves prosecution.
All Executive power vests in him. His Vice-President is a backup/understudy/insurance policy (looking at you, Joey Biden!). He directs the foreign policy of the United States and is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
The Supreme Court, and the lower courts Congress created to make life easier, adjudicate disputes between parties in interest subject to certain jurisdictional limitations; and because it grabbed the power and the People acquiesced, it rewrites the Constitution from time to time.
Its ability to do so is limited by popular will; stray too far and Article I will impeach. In theory, though, most of its work is adjudication of disputes that have no Constitutional significance.
In practice, here is what we have:
Congress is a bicameral ATM that dispenses money created by the Federal Reserve, a quasi-governmental organization of private banks that everyone agrees must never be the subject of direct government intervention.
Congress also holds hearings, which are not really about finding out anything so much as creating campaign footage. Sometimes they pass a law, which is really a lot of laws tucked into a single law, sometimes to alter other webs of laws, sometimes to create a web, sometimes both.
Congress also delegated a great deal of its law-making authority to the Executive because golly that’s a lot of work and the guys enforcing the law should get to decide what it means just as if they’re the ones making the law and this makes sense right?
When Congress does pass a law, it doesn’t have to care about what the laws passed by the Executive say except it does and can’t repeal those laws made by the Executive except with Executive approval or by a two-thirds override.
This is on balance probably a good thing because a lot, and I mean a lot, of laws are passed without being read by the Congresscritters voting for and against them.
Under the rarest of circumstances will Congress impeach and convict some low-ranking dude from Article III, and in the rarest-to-unimaginable circumstances will it impeach Article I, because two of the three times it tried it on a President, hoo Nellie, it didn’t go well.
This is ultimately relatively unimportant because the President is the Head of State and sort of the Head of Government, and has a Cabinet of Ministers with whom he isn’t supposed to talk too much for fear of having some influence on their behavior.
Those Ministers, whom he appoints with Congressional approval, go on to make the laws described above, and to enforce the laws, and sometimes not, and sometimes run roughshod over the people because they can.
This is only the President’s fault if he belongs to a party or belief unpopular with the aristocracy, more on this below, and is otherwise beyond his control because he’s not supposed to politicize his own Branch and anyway the thing’s too big.
Because of some fairly creative legal work by Article III, even if he wanted to fire anyone below the Cabinet level, he can’t because government jobs are property that cannot be seized except through due process, which means oh so many levels of checks and balances.
The President can only fire the Attorney General, or anyone in the Justice Department, if what the Justice Department is investigating is not important to the aristocracy.
The President can go to war without Congress agreeing, or make treaties-that-last-as-long-as-his-Presidency without Congress agreeing, or refuse to enforce laws, or create whole new legal programs, and Congress cannot refuse to fund any of it because reasons.
Additionally, the President cannot cancel any of the laws his Branch makes, even if directly in violation of the Constitution, unless Article III signs off or Article I signs off (and Article III signs off).
Article III writes amendments to the Constitution, beginning with the one allowing them to write Amendments ex nihilo and on their own, and decides national policy on issues of incredible importance under the guise of resolving cases and controversies.
The Judiciary also decides on the relative balance of power of the federal and state governments, the limits of the other branches’ power, and whether actions undertaken by the other branches are acceptable enough to stand.
Thus, the only unelected branch, other than apparently Article IIA, has the most direct and only unchecked decision on national lawmaking of all.
Hovering through all of this, and gauzily made up at times of future, current, and past members of some of those branches, is a self-appointed aristocracy that helps guide Article III in its decision making, and sets the acceptable parameters for the others.
Now back to the people.
This is a pretty stupid benchmark but we’ll use it for right now as a cheap proxy.
The Presidency is our only more-or-less national election, and it has for a very long time been the high-water mark of voter participation.
The dramatic spikes come as the franchise is extended (legally and sometimes after a tragic delay, effectively) to the population until it rests where it does now: A legal adult, without an active felony conviction, more or less the end.
You will note that we never hit 50%.
The term economists use for this is “rational apathy.” A voter who does not believe his life impacted by politics will tend to find more enjoyable uses of his time like toenail clipping on airplanes, dynamite fishing, etc.
That’s of course part of the problem: Voters who don’t have a stake in society the way, say, a married landowner with kids does, are less likely — but not completely unlikely — to vote.
But because the guy or gal with the stake in society feels that his or her vote is less valuable because it is diluted by the people with no stake, that increases the entirely rational feeling that the vote is less valuable relative to other pursuits.
In other words, as the franchise has expanded, the value of the franchise for each individual voter has fallen. But! Humans are political, even moreso than economic, animals.
Yes, I called them animals again.
This doesn’t mean that the humans like politics. It means they are social animals who order their lives around each other and in specific ways, and work together to achieve ends.
Aside from insanely making it legal for 18-24 year-olds to vote, the franchise has (legally, but not always effectively) been at more or less the same point for nearly a century.
Yet it is in this time that our system of governance has gone off the rails.
My wife blames women’s suffrage and the Seventeenth Amendment. Some blame one or the other, some have other causes — intellectual trends from Europe, a completely new set of incentives to politicians we never expected, etc.
I think the Seventeenth Amendment, intellectual trends from Europe, skewed incentives, etc., miss the cause for either the symptoms or for unrelated but concurrent conditions.
The greater problem is that we, the People, acquiesced in the quiet, slow-motion demolition of our Constitutional order and continue to do so to this day.
We do not vote the bums out when they do wrong. We do not demand that Congress act like it should, greedily guarding its first-among-equals status, or else they’ll lose their jobs and therefore the sinecures that follow. We don’t even treat it as first-among-equals.
Congress is the only national governing force in which we actually have a direct say, and we — in a fit of self-harming honesty — hate it more than the Presidency or Supreme Court, the two less-directly and un-elected Branches.
Congressmen therefore found they could more or less do this and leave on their own terms to get rich later.
Article IIA, with happy help from Article II, and Article III, arrogated more and more power to themselves. Article I loves this because it means that Article I cannot thunder about the awful awfulness of the rules Article IIA makes, not do anything, and stay in their seats.
Article III’s power grab is even better because they enjoy a lot of popular love and so when they make policy instead of Article I, Article I can perpetually stay in power by railing against Article III with no danger of exhausting that well.
Our system of governance is now predicated entirely on skewed lines of authority and responsibility, and we not only tolerate it, we reward it.
As a People, we are uninterested in the hard work of self-governance, which requires a constant check on our governors and constant vigilance for their next wander into the realm of depravity.
As a People, we are bemused and indifferent to the fact that our elected representatives have so re-allocated power that we don’t meaningfully have elected governance any more, but man do we have exciting elections.
As a People, we have proven ourselves unworthy of self-governance, and the men and women who would be our governors have taken notice. As a People, we suck, and we’ve brought all of this on ourselves.
Well said. Sadly.