As you may have heard, the U.S. Presidential election is over at last, after an epic two-year slog. Now, because our Byzantine system of governance baffles even many Americans, and given the stakes – for us, our friends and our neighbors – I thought I’d explain some of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the system to PositiveLite.com readers. Key to understanding it is that America is not actually a democracy, it is a republic substantially devised at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Astonishingly enough, it still works more or less as originally planned.
Every four years since 1790, we have gone to the polls to fill the highest office in the land, the Presidency. In war and peace, famine and plenty, Americans have voted. None of these elections have been direct, in the sense that you vote directly for a candidate; rather, you vote for a member of the Electoral College, allocated by state under a formula that gives each one as many votes as it has members of the Federal legislature. Hence, the breathless reportage from ‘swing states’ like perennial nail-biters Ohio and Florida.
Over the decades and centuries, these elections have been of greater and lesser consequence; the election of George Washington, the first President, solidified a young nation, the third, Thomas Jefferson, stripped the office of its monarchical trappings and began the transition from an aristocratic republic to one governed by yeomen and merchants. Decades later, Abraham Lincoln steered the union through a cataclysmic civil war and extended the suffrage to men of color. Again decades later, Theodore Roosevelt broke the power of overweening capital and created the greatest jewel in the national fabric, America’s splendid preserve of National Parks. His distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the greatest President of the last century, won an unprecedented four terms in the White House, vanquished the Great Depression, established the foundations of the modern welfare state, the New Deal, and, perhaps most importantly, first in fits and starts and then openly, threw American power and wealth into a global war against the barbarity of fascism.
Roosevelt’s immediate successors, Harry Truman and Ike Eisenhower, cemented the American involvement in the world beyond our shores, often for good, sometimes for ill, that has been characteristic of the postwar United States. Their America, supremely confident and possessed of a sense of mission, imposed by suasion or fiat a liberal international order of free trade, an end to (European) imperialism, and supranational bodies to if not govern, then guide this new, interconnected world, with their country at its apex, Henry Kissinger’s “indispensable power”.
"American conservatism..this school of thought is in many ways not comparable to its brethren in Europe and the Commonwealth who claim the same nomenclature."
Unseen or ignored by the bi-partisan liberal establishment of Washington and New York, however, something grew within this country defiantly at odds with this new domestic and international order: American conservatism. This school of thought is in many ways not comparable to its brethren in Europe and the Commonwealth who claim the same nomenclature; its roots are rather, say, in the orbit of one Father Coughlin, a radio personality of the 1930s, vehemently nativist, distrustful even of duly elected public authorities, rigorously anti-communist, and after the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, imbued with distinct strains of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It sought, as polemical author William F. Buckley memorably phrased it, to stand “athwart history yelling 'Stop!' “, all the while preserving and if possible expanding the historically relatively new global power of the United States.
The first modern conservative President, Ronald Reagan, was elected in 1980. Domestically, Reagan faced a liberal order grown stale and, in frankness, in many of its manifestations irrelevant to a world different from the one in which it had been built. Under his administration, the post-war liberal consensus, that government has a role to play in the life of the governed, that capitalism functions best under the constraints of common purpose and that America abroad would seek to act in concert with others, began to collapse.
Historically, it’s not entirely an accident that the AIDS epidemic first began to rage in those years; a government unconcerned with its more undesirable citizens certainly saw little cause to act on what, even a decade earlier, would have elicited a full-spectrum public response.
This conservative ascendancy, strengthened by the end of the Cold War and the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, began to fracture as the Iraq War descended into practical defeat and cracked in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States.
"There is a certain poetry inherent in these milestones being marked by the country’s first black President."
His reelection in 2012 may deliver the fatal blow to American conservatism as we presently know it. It seals the legislative achievements of the President’s first term, including equal pay for women (in 2012, imagine that), the ability of LGBT Americans to serve in the armed forces, and most importantly, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly known as Obamacare, which establishes, more or less universal healthcare (and contains within it the nation’s first comprehensive HIV and AIDS strategy, along with the levers to put it into effect). There is a certain poetry inherent in these milestones being marked by the country’s first black President, one might add.
Very often in life and in art, the saying “there is more to the story” applies, and there is indeed more of note to November’s results than just a second term for Barack Obama, important as it may be.
Under our small-R republican system of government, the President is not in fact the final arbiter of the body politic. In the Cold War, it is true that the chief executive became rather more powerful than his historical predecessors in what has often been referred to as the Imperial Presidency, a term coined by historian Arthur Schlesinger in a 1973 book of the same title.
Under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, however, the power of the purse resides in the lower chamber of the legislature, and broad powers of advice and consent in the upper, the U.S. Senate. In that chamber, the election of November 2012 returned a larger (and more progressive) Democratic majority; the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, is still held by people who in some cases think Jesus rode around the state of Missouri on a dinosaur.
Obviously, this latter fact is a bit of a problem for progressive Americans, and it very much remains to be seen how consequential that problem is.
One thing, however, is clear: the sound defeat of Republican presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney is enormously important to this country for quite a few reasons.
Chief among these is what a putative President Romney will not be able to do: cut existing public expenditures on healthcare, research and foreign aid (including PEPFAR, the program that pays for HIV treatment in the Third World). He will also not be nominating any judges to the Federal bench or get this country into any more wars overseas. Or strip LGBT citizens of every single advance in rights we made over the last four years. Or re-impose the HIV travel ban lifted by President Obama, which lets people with HIV again travel to the United States. Or “end Obamacare on day one”. Or move the embassy of the United States in Israel into the tinderbox of Jerusalem. Or establish a precedent that allows a handful of billionaires to buy a superpower.
Politics is as much poetry as prose, as much art as it is naked power, and seen from that point of view, there is something thrilling about the 2012 elections. They brought into focus an emerging new country; a place of the heart, not just of the gun, one where who you love, what you look like, where you come from, is a matter of indifference to the state. America is not perfect, never has been, never will be; but we can be better than we thought possible, a better friend to our friends and a better neighbor to our neighbors. Our fabled American Dream doesn’t have to be a nightmare for us or anyone else.
And that, at the end of a long day, is what this entire drawn-out battle was about: choices. God alone knows we haven’t always made the right ones; but this time, I think we did.