Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The heat from all the discussion of the Presidential race is becoming white hot. With less than 60 days until the election, the sniping between the candidates only increases ("lipstick on a pig" being the latest contribution to our national political debate) and in bars and airports, over kitchen tables and in the pews, the discussion over which candidate will be better for the future of America rages.

At the moment both candidates are attempting to position themselves as agents of CHANGE. If during his long campaign the number of times that Obama has used the word "change" were to be counted, we'd likely discover that he'd used it more times than most people use words in a year. Meanwhile - to Obama's deep frustration - with the pick of Sarah Palin, John McCain has reclaimed his "maverick" title and now is running even, if not slightly ahead of Obama, in many national and state polls.

For a time some Republican candidates attempted to raise questions over the kind of change that we can expect from Obama, rightly questioning whether he will indeed bring "change we can believe in." Lacking any strong legislative record or significant political accomplishments or stands, Obama has spoken extensively of change while minimizing emphasis on concrete instances of what change he would like to enact. Lately, in arguing that electing McCain would simply be putting more of the same in office, his argument for change simply seems to boil down to the choice of putting a different party in the White House. His choice of Joe Biden as a running mate seemed to confirm that what we could expect was more of the same from the party that has held the Presidency for roughly half of the 20th century. In the midst of widespread raptures induced by the touching belief that Obama will be a messianic figure of "change," we should recall that during our modern Presidential era - let's say from 1945 to 2008 (thus not including FDR's long Presidency), Republicans occupied the White House for 34 years and Democrats for 29. Change indeed.

In policy terms, what does "change we can believe in" - either from an Obama or McCain presidency - likely entail? From Obama we have been offered a long litany of domestic programs that promise to sink the nation further into massive debt. His claim that all his promised programs can be paid for relies - as usual in these cases - on the most optimistic forecasts for revenue (i.e., tax receipts). At the same time he proposes a massive increase in federal spending, he is also promising tax cuts for the middle class. Most recently he is talking about instituting another "stimulus" package, meaning a further dip into funds borrowed from the Chinese. Given a backdrop in which the U.S. Government has nationalized the national mortgage system and in which the economy is dropping faster than attendance at a Nicholas Cage movie, it's implausible that such an expansion can take place in a fiscally responsible way. The larger point is: even were the economy robust enough to allow for a tax cut AND sufficient tax receipts, in what way does an expansion of domestic programs under a Democratic presidency represent "change we can believe in"?

Meanwhile McCain proposes further tax cuts modeled on George Bush's first term tax cuts - ones that, along with a weakened economy, have massively increased the deficit and thus borrowing from foreign powers - while proposing an energy "policy" whose primary plank is to "drill, baby, drill." He may be able to impose slightly more fiscal responsibility on what will assuredly be an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, but one can almost predict that the fiscal policy of a McCain-Democratic Congress will consist of compromises in which the American citizenry receives tax cuts AND new spending programs. In an Obama presidency with a Democratic Congress, we can expect broad tax cuts for the middle class and even more new domestic spending.

In short, we have two candidates who are effectively promising more of the same. Both would likely preside over an enlargement of the federal government. Both are engaged in a war of making promises to an anxious and comparatively pampered American citizenry. Both promise to be conscientious caretakers of our far-flung empire.

In this, we actually see no change at all. Both will continue the consolidation of national power to the center and identically embody the modern fetish of "bigness." They both contend to occupy an office that they insist should exercise massive power. What should strike observers is that both candidates offer themselves as a savior of our times, investing hopes in the office of the Presidency far beyond what it can actually achieve, even while deepening the American love affair with their ever-more centralized Executive office. As stated wonderfully here,

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

Our current national obsession with the Presidential race is, at one level, understandable, since so much of the national policy will take on the cast of the worldview of the man elected to office. But how much better if we were far LESS concerned with the current race for the Presidency. How much better if the President were not invested with so much power to run so massive a military-industrial apparatus. How much better if we didn't operate under the belief that the fate of the world potentially lie in the hands of this one man. How much better if we viewed the election to the Presidency with the same level of interest we view the election of our State governors - and, correspondingly, if we had far greater interest in the election of our State governor and even more in our mayors and aldermen. How much better if the activities of our Federal government in expanding commerce to encompass the trade and exploitation of the globe, on the one hand, and the military power of an empire in comparison to which Rome paled, on the other, had remained a theoretical fear of the first critics of the Federal constitution.

(Thus warned the Anti-federalist Cato of New York: "Compare your past opinions and sentiments with the present proposed establishment, and you will find, that if you adopt it, that it will lead into a system which you heretofore regarded as odious.... Wherein does this president, invested with his powers and prerogatives, essentially differ from the king of Great Britain....? [Do not] be convinced that this government is no more like a true picture of your own [State government], than an Angel of darkness resembles and Angel of light" [Letter V]. Elsewhere he wrote, "The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other; as we depart home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment; enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees, we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species" [Letter IV].)

Neither candidate will seek to restore "attachments" to our localities; each promises to continue our centuries-long movement toward ever-greater "consolidation." A real change would be on the day when we spend far less time obsessing about the Presidential race because the activities of the executive will matter far less to the lives we lead in our communities. Now that's change I can believe in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Well said. I should like to think that something like your thoughts have been considered by our two political parties, but my sense is that they do not care. The presidency has become so important that neither side can afford to let it slip away.

I wonder, though, about the radical implications of your post. Given that you quote the anti-federalists, are you saying that the American regime, from its beginning contained the seeds of its own unmaking in the form of an over-mighty executive?

If that is the case, does that leave any opening for reform or is the only effective way to return to more local governance to scrap the constitution and start over?