The Myth of the Transformative Election

Professor Michael Johnston

The most deserving loser in next Tuesday’s election will emerge a political survivor and will be back on the national stage when the next presidential campaign staggers to its feet. I don’t mean Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Instead, I refer to the myth of the transformative presidency.

Despite all manner of experience to the contrary, a large portion of the American pub-lic thinks that electing a president or replacing the old with the new, will change nearly everything. A recent letter writer in a local newspaper, for example, urged us to vote for Romney, promising us that when the former governor becomes president all abortions will quickly cease.

The 2008 version of Barack Obama, aided to be sure by recent history and legions of politically inexperienced backers, raised expectations even higher. The immense gap between those expectations and his actual performance – a positive and effective record in my own view, if hardly enough to knock the universe off its axis – is surely one cause for the tightness of the current race. It’s also, of course, a reason why “change” retains its appeal this year.

I’ve seen a lot of presidential elections by now (though there is no truth at all to the rumor that I remember James Monroe’s victory back in 1812 – he wasn’t elected until 1816).

Each one has featured promises of new beginnings. Pres-idential candidates promise big, bold initiatives because they must; you don’t get elected by saying “I’ll do whatever I can.”

That’s how they keep the base in line and how they get our attention in a noisy world. Better yet, a dif-fuse appeal like “change” engages all sorts of discon-tents without requiring specifics. It’s no surprise that so many expect their presidential choice to change so much.

But our system was designed, for better and worse, to inhibit such transformations. The separation of powers, staggered terms and federalism all fragment power, mak-ing it hard to win and even more difficult to hold and use. Even presidents whose parties control both legislative houses must bob and weave, rethinking the big agenda. The House, after all, is made up of 435 political gardeners, each tilling a single plot of ground.

The Senate consists of 100 superstars, each of whom gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and sees a future president.

Neither group will fall in line solely on partisan grounds, if only because – federal-ism, again – they must carefully attend to the state and local interests that got them elected.

That is not to say that presidential elections don’t make a difference. The years 1932, 1960, 1980 and 2000 prove otherwise. But the difference that they make is rarely apparent until well after the election, often involves unusual opportunities or events and virtually never surfaces as a clear-cut choice during the campaign.

Elections allow us to render judgments on past administrations and policies, regis-ter approval and discontent (usually simultaneously, and in diffuse ways), and watch wealthy and powerful grown-ups pretend they really are “glad to be here in lower elbow,” and really are enjoying all those hours in nondescript caf?es.

Those are good things and they’re reasons why we “politics trekkies,” who actually watch C-SPAN for entertainment, like campaigns. What elections aren’t, however, is a chance to reinvent the world every four years.

Do you still want to change things through politics? I have a suggestion, although it is boring and requires patience: don’t overlook state and local politics. Know any local officials who have been in office forever, run pretty much unopposed and could use a good shaking up, or a group or issue needing an advocate?

Get involved. It takes time, energy and can be boring for long stretches of time: chances are your local government’s deliberations on solid waste policy don’t resemble Jimmy Stuart’s filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

But most of the issues and movements that have produced major change on a na-tional scale – the civil rights movement, the so-called Moral Majority, anti-tax revolts, the Tea Party, the “Occupy” movement – began as local initiatives and events and would have faded away unless people had jumped on board.

Or consider this: on November 6, a future president or two, and many more future senators and governors, will be elected for the first time to offices most of us have never thought of.

A few others will lose but, in the process, learn things that contribute to fu-ture success. We don’t know yet which future issues and leaders will have emerged, but they’ll be there. Next time around, you have a chance to be an active part of that sort of change.

Contact Professor Michael Johnston at [email protected]