The Irrelevance of the American Presidential Race

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[Edit, Jan 28th, 2017: given the executive orders that have gone out over the last few days and the resultant clusterfuck, I am completely wrong on this point. Consider this entire post retracted. I’m not deleting it, as I prefer to keep my mistakes visible.]

At this point, it’s agreed across the political spectrum that the American Presidential race is a disaster of epic proportions. With Trump clearly in the lead on the Republican side, much ink has been spilt over how we (or they) have gotten here.

I think that Samantha Bee (on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) has come out of the closest when she laid the blame at the feet 2010 midterm Congressional elections. She’s absolutely correct that that election is the cause of the deadlock of the US Congress over the last several years, but I think she doesn’t go far enough.

The issue is that Congressional elections matter far more than the Presidential elections, but TV has confused the populace.

I’m from Ireland, which is a Republic, just like the USA. While the two systems aren’t identical, exactly, they’re more similar than dissimilar. And over there, we recognise that the President is both the head of state, and (for all practical purposes) almost entirely powerless. Watching the furor in the American Presidential race is, I have to admit, confusing.

The American President can veto bills that come their way. That’s really the only legislative power they have: to say ‘no’ to a bill. Other than that, the President has zero legislative power. Calling ‘the Affordable Care Act’ “Obamacare” is particularly confusing on this understanding of Presidential power: if the US Congress had been dominated by Republicans, it wouldn’t have mattered a whit what Obama had wanted, the bill would never even have been brought up for a vote, nevermind getting passed.

In the context of other countries, the Congressional elections are called “general elections” and are recognised as the most important elections to turn out for. Dominance in the lower house of a state (regardless of it being a parliamentary system or a republic) is what primarily determines what legislation is going to be passed. Moreover, in the US system, the veto power of the President can be suppressed if a bill is passed by a sufficiently large majority of the house. The “most powerful person in the world”? Seems pretty weak to me.

So where to go from here?

Ignore the circus that is the American Presidential Race. I’m not saying that it’s not at all important, but I am saying that it pales in comparison to state Congressional (and Senatorial) elections. Sure, these elections don’t draw in the whole country to cast their vote for one flag-bearer for each team party and so are far less ‘exciting’ in that regard, the systemic change they can implement is PROFOUNDLY important to the running of the country. As such, if we’re to pay attention to something in accordance with how important it is, the Congressional elections should have the most attention paid to them.

Let me lay it out in simple terms: if people who prefer the Democratic party were to get out and vote in the next congressional election in numbers sufficient to sweep congress back to it’s 2009 levels, Trump would be a complete non-issue. Sure, it’d be embarrassing to have him as the leader of the US. But he can’t enact laws. He could bluster and complain, and direct departments to change how they operate (within certain limitations), but he couldn’t get them to act contrary to existing legislation, and any violation of Constitutional law would be dealt with by the courts.

I believe that this focus on the American President, as opposed to Congress, started to occur in the 1950s with the ubiquity of the television set (I’ve been unable to find a reference for this), and that’s what set the USA on this unsustainable path. Here’s hoping the people of that country realise what a mistake that has been, and turn away from the clowns.

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