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The reality of presidential elections

This year, like many years, the two presidential candidates provide American voters not with a decision about who might be the best man for the job, but rather who would be the less worse option. Indeed, it is often the case that presidential elections amount to little more than an agonizing guessing game about which candidate is the lesser of two evils. Regardless, for the political class it’s a useful and enduring myth in American discourse that a voting majority can actually wield power or substantively affect decision-making in any country (if that’s even something desirable at all). It’s actually the case that the entire electoral process in America relies on the courting of targeted interest groups, media bias, prolific fundraising, and campaign strategies aimed at wooing a handful of independent voters in a few key states deemed essential to a campaign’s electoral strategy. The cyclical nature of voting means that anyone bent on pursuing or protecting a cherished, lucrative, and influential career in high office must appear and sound likable, deliver a carefully scripted, prepackaged set of talking points subject to instant scrutiny and the wrath of easily-offended interest groups, and distort the opponent’s positions as much as possible to make him or her appear as undesirable as possible. It is becoming increasingly naive to think that any political personality seeking office can possibly be “different” from the others, a trailblazing progressive, or a refreshing new start in political culture. The fact is that no one can win elections without respecting the principles mentioned above.

The case of Barack Obama is illustrative here. He ran a historic campaign in 2008 in which his eloquence, likability, and simple message of hope and change propelled a virtually unknown senator from Illinois to national and global power. Progressives had high hopes that Obama would be a genuine new start after eight difficult years of Bush policies and would champion, both in word and in deed, their values and priorities. Four years on, however, it’s clear that Obama has been a disappointment for many. He has done little to advance critical priorities of the left, such as climate change, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, and advancing initiatives to protect the rights of foreign combatants held in US custody. His foreign policy has proved to be rather similar in substance if not detail to Bush’s, by opting to keep Guantanamo Bay open, pushing for extensions and even additions to surveillance programs, utilizing drones that have caused significant civilian casualties throughout the Muslim world, and authorizing new military ventures in Libya. After promising to cut the national debt in half by the end of his first term, the national debt is on track to hit $20 trillion (up from about $10.5 trillion at the time of the 2009 inauguration, a sum which was already rising very rapidly under George Bush) by the end of a theoretical second Obama term. The stellar hopes of revitalized economic institutions and prosperity amidst extraordinary challenges at home and abroad, challenges which include ongoing uncertainty about fiscal policy, the aftereffects of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and the huge costs of the so-called Arab Spring, have been tempered by the reality of a disappointing recovery, high unemployment, and failed enormous investments by the U.S. government in a slew of green technology companies. On a more abstract level, the promise of an era of bipartisanship and cooperation has given way to the most divided Washington that the U.S. has probably ever known. Whether Obama’s failure to deliver on his promises (the merits of which will not be considered here at this time) is the result of the reality of Washington politics or the result of his political opportunism – being leery of pursuing any policy initiative that could jeopardize his victory in another 4 years – is hard to say.
That being said, the alternative is not particularly attractive. Mitt Romney is as much a political opportunist as Obama. He has changed positions on key issues numerous times over the past few years. He has articulated policy positions whose details look suspicious to economists, such as the specifics of his promise to cut taxes and reduce the national debt. However, criticisms levied against Romney regarding his lucrative career at Bain are generally unfair: most people have no idea what equity firms do, why outsourcing and offshoring are good economic phenomena, and why it is not a bad thing that people could possibly get rich off of buying up and rebuilding companies. Furthermore, discussions about Romney’s taxes have proven to be disingenuous. It is true that he was often taxed at a rate of 14% since his income came from capital gains; however, critics often fail to bring up the fact that capital gains are double-taxed as corporate income at significantly higher rates, meaning that a myopic fixation on 14% is inaccurate and misleading.
However, Romney has done surprisingly little to distinguish himself in substance from the 8 years of George Bush’s administration. Reducing the size and scope of government to promote investment and growth are economically sound ideas; however, under Bush – who tooted the same horn of supposedly limited government – government grew at an extraordinarily fast pace, as did the national debt, which was exacerbated by poorly conceived tax cuts that were not balanced by substantial spending cuts and structural reforms. Romney today cannot even articulate a credible plan to cut tax rates without adding significantly to the national debt, so it’s not clear why a person leery of both Obama and his predecessor should cast his support behind Romney.
The media manage to convince voters that candidates are more different from each other than they really are. The reality is that little in substance differentiates them. Republicans profess loyalty to a mixed market-based economy while stressing the desirability of maintaing a welfare state that can take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Democrats also profess loyalty to a mixed market-based economy while, more vocally than the Republicans, stressing the desirability of maintaining a welfare state that can take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. While arguments between the two groups may fixate on a particular dollar amount for a particular program or a particular policy that may liberalize this or that part of the economy, both pursue policies that favor politically-chosen, politically-connected corporate personalities; both are strongly reluctant to touch structurally lopsided and bankruptcy-destined entitlement programs; both support the idea that government can and ought to be an active force in countering cyclical turns in the economy; both basically agree on the same kind of foreign policy. If voters took the time to wade beyond simplistic accusations that the other side is a radical departure from sanity, they would realize that there are few genuine choices in national politics for voters who have come to understand that the status quo is unsustainable and undesirable.

During this electoral cycle, voters may understandably feel compelled to vote for a candidate they regard as an improvement over the alternative. But it’s high time for the myth of the national presidency – a quasi-divine institution that promises to rain down blessings, favor, change, and prosperity upon everything it touches – to be replaced in the American psyche with a significant dose of reality, and the reality is this: the U.S. government, while long rhetorically attaching itself to popular and good-sounding ideas such as individual rights and restrained constitutional government which have helped it win legitimacy and enthusiasm from the American people, has been and always will be an arena for people of powerful ambitions to advance their interests and those of their political allies. Neither a hip, eloquent Obama nor a successful businessman like Romney will ever change that.

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