Peak President

The proposal that America fixates too much on the presidency is not exactly new or novel.

It has probably been more than a decade since I began marking midterm elections’ completion by suggesting, sourly, that “it’s so nice this is out of the way, and journalists can devote themselves exclusively to presidential politics once again.” I believe it has been at least a few years since Matthew Yglesias argued—I don’t recall whether it was at Vox or Slate, and in any event it was probably not a totally new suggestion—that liberals in particular have invested too much in pursuit of the White House while neglecting every other component of American government. Earlier this year, Yglesias’s Vox colleague Dylan Matthews wrote an essay suggesting that the eventual outcome of America’s political dysfunction will be neither collapse nor coup but, instead, gradual transformation of the presidency into an “elective dictatorship.” I found Matthews’s scenario quite easy to imagine.

Today, though, it occurred to me that revisiting this issue might permit some fruitful juxtaposition of two or three phenomena that have been bugging me, lately.

To dive in right at the deep end, the resentful and even contemptuous disruptions of Bernie Sanders’s campaign by Black Lives Matter has definitely bugged me. As I am well aware that this is much of the whole point, I like to imagine that my saying this is not actually a moral offense. (Meanwhile, I’m also aware that no one pays me any individual notice, so.)

Still, for all the valid points made in relation to this activism, I have had a difficult time really believing that it makes sense from a practical standpoint. But today I had the thought that one of the ways that it seems misguided, to me, may actually offer explanation of why it does in fact make a good deal of sense for practical reasons.

It is awfully tempting for me to conclude that these efforts, even if spread around equally to other candidacies and even the sitting president as well, offer another example of focusing on the big visible target of the presidency while ignoring the more relevant but diffuse “down-ballot” offices. Thinking about it further, though, I concluded that this might not be laziness or myopia so much as a very realist response to American politics as it exists.

As I noted in setting out, the subordination of so much of our political discourse and a growing (if still limited) amount of political power to the presidency is not new. For many reasons it’s absurd to point at Black Lives Matter activists and say “you’re placing too much emphasis on the presidency.” It’s often a blurry line between encouraging a phenomenon and simply responding to it pragmatically, but in this case I don’t think it’s actually very blurry. This was already the situation. Our national conversation obsesses over presidential politics for at least two years out of every four, and if you want to push your political message to audiences that can otherwise elude it very easily—which, regardless of any other reforms that may need pursuing, seems like a valid object here—then crashing a presidential campaign is a very sound strategy. Likewise crashing a campaign which conventional wisdom would not expect you to protest, and thus offering the media some novelty.

Having reached this conclusion, I realized that similar reasoning might explain another phenomenon which has quickly begun bugging me just as much. (Lots of things bug me.)

From all I have read so far, Lawrence Lessig’s newly announced campaign for a one-law presidency has struck me as not only dubious but just about insane. Here, too, I wondered “why in god’s name are you doing this rather than, say, supporting a candidate who shares most if not all of your agenda?” I don’t know everything but I’m not aware that Sanders, at all events, is so reluctant about campaign finance reform that competing with him seems more useful than supporting him.

Particularly given that Lessig’s entire plan, such as it is, seems fundamentally deluded. As I griped on Twitter, even the language describing it seems willfully invalid. While the president has certainly been exercising a growing ability to set policy, during my life, he or she still cannot actually “pass laws.” For that you need Congress, which has become a place where reforms stall and die in part because so many people focus on the presidency and ignore dull sidenotes like midterm elections and state races that influence congressional redistricting and, wonderful, here we go again.

In this case, I’m not sure that my incomprehension is entirely unfounded; I suspect Lessig may well have cracked a bit after thinking too long about a seemingly insoluble problem. In fairness to him, though, there is again an argument to be made that “crashing” the presidential campaign is the best way to insert an issue into our political conversation in 2015. Given how (even with more than a dozen Republican candidates) our punditry class has been so desperate for more Democratic competitors that they have begun writing about imaginary runs by Joe Biden and even Al Gore, jumping into the race as another progressive candidate can’t be dismissed as an entirely valueless action.

This is the system we have. It is what’s really misguided and cracked.

One other minor line of thinking may have fed into this new track, and it offers a bleakly humorous perspective. This weekend, my current research has taken me into newspaper archives, with a focus in and around 1948. In scanning issues from that summer, I found much colorful speculation about presidential nominees—arguably familiar enough, especially as the newspapers in question are from Iowa. Except 1948 was the election year. I got the distinct impression that the 1948 campaign was in roughly the same position, that summer, that the 2016 campaign is in the summer of 2015. If so, in little more than 60 years we have reserved an additional 25% of our political conversation—if not our entire national conversation—to the presidency. To zero social benefit that I can see.

Sadly, the title of this post is somewhat misleading, too. I don’t think we’re at “peak president” even now. This all-consuming sociopolitical black hole may have much room to grow, still. Which unfortunately it probably will do.

I certainly have no idea what reverses this. Something may; history also reveals that social fixations can loom larger and larger and then fade away for no really convincing “reason.” I’m not sure that any particular countermeasure explains the transformation, of male college students’ determination to engage in “panty raids,” from seriously discussed problem to archaic joke. Maybe the presidency will deflate at some point, also.

I would certainly like to think so, because I don’t think its evolution (devolution?) into an elective dictatorship is really all that reassuring a prospect, even compared with more obviously disastrous scenarios. Yes, something along these lines seems to work in other countries, notably Britain. But…

  • That doesn’t mean it will work anywhere. As I recall, France tried adopting a constitution much like Britain’s, at one point, and could not establish a stable government to save its life.
  • The United States is a bit larger than Britain, which is particularly troubling given that our apparent loss of interest in every other level of government seems to point to something much like the British system, in which most decision-making above the level of local council seems to be consolidated in the capital…
  • …which system isn’t actually working flawlessly even in Britain, even with some limited regional “devolution” measures.

Not long ago a friend raised the question, which westerners have liked to ask for centuries, really, “do you think we’re on the way to another fall of Rome?” I poured some cold water on this idea, partly for reasons Bruce Sterling once expressed so well.* That said, the idea that America is drifting toward a Romanesque transition from republican assembly to imperial presidency… I have more difficulty waving away.

* “Americans… love to imagine that America leads the collapse.  If we’re not the Shining City on the Hill, we’ve at least got to be the Smoldering Wreckage on the Hill.  You know: as long as we’re always the Hill.”

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