The Presidency

2020’s campaign rhetoric was threadbare and tiresome before it even launched. “Joe Biden is diminished and corrupt.” “His running mate couldn’t make it to the primaries.” “Trump is a racist misogynist xenophobe.” “His VP wants America to become A Handmaids Tale.”

We’ve heard similar statements in past presidential elections, but the negativity grows with each cycle. Whether we’re voting on Trump, Romney, McCain, or Bush ……. Biden, Hillary, Obama, Kerry, or Gore ….. each side seeks to discredit the opposing candidate. “This person isn’t qualified to hold the office.”

While our attention is drawn to specific individuals within the current news cycle, the longer arc of history gets overlooked. For example, George Washington presided over three cabinet level secretaries and one attorney general. In contrast, today’s federal government has more than 2000 departments, agencies, administrations, authorities, and commissions, employing as many as 9.1 million people. The bulk reside under the executive branch …… and therefore, the president.

The following chart serves as a rough proxy for growth of the office’s power since the 1930s. Note the “massive spending” for the existential threat of World War II at the far left side ……

Chart Credit: Wikideas1 (CC BY-SA 4.0) Data Source: obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

This revenue and spending chart tracks actual numbers. But it also functions as a metaphor for the intensity of our emotions. Every four years, we encounter “the most important election in American history.” The statement might seem hyperbolic, but its assertion is supported by the data: our reactions ratchet up each cycle because vast additional resources have come under a specific person’s control.

Regardless of political party or personal character, each president is able to issue executive orders, to appoint long-serving judges, and to prod congress into passing budgets that meet his or her policy priorities …… a few of the many dominions administered by the office. This enormous expanse of power has been granted over a period measured in generations. Control has gradually been concentrated in a particular location.

When we correctly perceive that a single individual, whom we’ll likely never meet, will make crucial decisions about our lives, it causes our assessment of that person to change. Normal human missteps are magnified. Forbearance and forgiveness carry too much risk. Thus, much of the country considers the Democratic candidate to be a loathsome force. And a different piece of the populace takes the same view about the Republican.

Is it any wonder the stakes feel so high every four years? Is it surprising to see the political parties pursue dishonest and illegal tactics when so much control is at stake? Why wouldn’t we be concerned about the person who captures all that power? One character flaw could have existential ramifications.

This situation has been accepted as a given. When the next cycle comes around, we brace for greater conflict. But, as the graph shows, the conundrum is of our own making. There are other options. For example, how often have you heard the phrase “not my governor” in your state? Or …… has “the resistance” ever developed against your town’s mayor? Many people don’t even know the names of their local leaders. Those officials don’t hold enough power to impact our lives. We focus instead on the real action …… in Washington DC, New York City, or Silicon Valley.

To investigate this collective blind spot, it’s helpful to examine the language each campaign crafts to combat its opponent. The core message – for both sides – remains unchanged through every election cycle: “The other candidate isn’t qualified to hold the office.” This sentence contains two nouns. The first is candidate. The second is office. In each election, all of our attention is drawn to the first noun. None is drawn to the second.

If Americans are going reverse the growing dysfunction that currently plagues our society, the second noun will require some analysis. We’ll need to determine just how much power one office should control.

Unfortunately, the presidency is only one component within a long march toward the centralization of power in America. Real control is concentrated in just a few institutions, locations, and players. They increasingly determine the narrowing framework within which our lives are conducted.

Today, in November 2020, our fate is once again being determined at the national level. It is occurring under questionable circumstances and intense emotions. We’ve been stuck in this pattern for many cycles. Do we want it to continue?

Before 2024 rolls around, we might want to ask: “Just how much power should a small group of people be granted over the rest of us?”

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