Put more money into bicycling and pedestrian and railroad infrastructure, or less. Move forward from the current small steps towards sustainability (energy development, resource-focused, climate protective, land-use, and economic), or not. Build on the current stutter-steps towards rationalizing our wasteful healthcare system and providing universal access, or not. Increase controls over speculative financial markets, or not. Move cautiously on foreign interventions, or the opposite.
The coming elections provide as stark a choice as any in recent memory.
When I was growing up, the “good government” thing to do was to “vote the person, not the party.” Back then, this approach made some sense because the spectrum of politics within each party was wider than the difference between them: the Democrats had both racist Dixicrats and New Deal Liberals; the Republicans had both small-business reactionaries and corporate internationalists.
My parents, depression babies who were life-long Democrats in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, cheered when Republican John Lindsey became New York City’s mayor, effectively ending the power of Tammany Hall’s patronage machine and unleashing a series of progressive reforms. Here in Massachusetts, it was Republican Frank Sargent who became the first governor in the country to stop highway expansion. More recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started as a Republican, has aggressively pushed progressive public health, environmental, smart growth, and transportation policies.
But today, while the Democrats still contain a broad spectrum of political tendencies, from Blue-Dogs to Progressives, the Republican Party has become an ideological monolith. A party’s official platform is usually a throw-away document designed as a sop to the more ideological segments of the support base. However, to a degree not common in recent elections, the GOP platform actually does represent what Republican officials will enact. The far-right fringes – anti-regulation libertarian, patriarchic and homophobic, religiously intolerant, xenophobic if not racist – have united to secure unprecedented control over the entire party apparatus. In today’s GOP, “moderate” is to the right of what used to be called conservative, and even that is considered unacceptably soft to the party’s true believers who routinely reject any but the most extreme candidates in primary elections.
So the reality is that in any situation where the two major parties are in contention, where one party doesn’t have a totally dominant position, a vote for a person is just as much a vote for their party. Electing Scott Brown rather than Elizabeth Warren means helping the Republicans take control of the US Senate; electing Richard Tisei rather than John Tierney means helping the Republicans retain control of the US House of Representatives. And the Republicans will use that control to appoint Committee Chairmen and push legislation to implement their platform.
In Executive positions, the Governorship and Presidency, the impact of victory is even less tied to the elected individual’s personality or the nuances of his/her political beliefs. The top person does set the tone of an Administration and, in a small number of issue-areas, actually sets the agenda – particularly, for the Presidency, in foreign policy. But the most broadly impactful aspect of a successful campaign is not the leader but the supporting team. The coalition of interests (especially the financial interests) that propel someone into office get their most important payback from the appointments to second, third, and even fourth-level positions in the new Administration. It’s not that particular quid-pro-quo deals don’t exist but those usually relate to narrow self-aggrandizements rather than deep operational changes– campaign contributions in exchange for specific policy changes. In contrast, it is the Administrative appointees whose decisions and actions actually shape the way that government interacts with the entire society – as was so painfully exhibited by the response of George Bush’s FEMA appointees to Hurricane Katrina.
Because of their importance, coalition partners start lobbying for their representatives’ appointments even before the election tallies are complete. Obama’s immediate post-election rehiring of Clinton and Bush advisers to run his own financial policy team was as telling as anything else about the power that big money retained despite the financial system’s collapse.
When Ronald Reagan became president, the Heritage Foundation prepared a list of every possible federal position whose occupancy could be influenced by the incoming Administration – as well as recommendations on which people, representing the most conservative sectors of the GOP coalition, should be considered as candidates. The effort reached further and deeper than any house-cleaning effort in recent history, with the explicit goal of eliminating anyone at any level whose views and style of operation might have been shaped by either the New Deal or the War On Poverty. It was such a brilliant and powerful strategy that state-level Republican, and some Democratic, parties have tried to replicate it with the Beacon Hill changeover from the long Dukakis reign to the Weld Administration being the most acute local example.
Policy and law are written in broad strokes with a large degree of generality. It is the long coat-tails of an elected Executive that shapes the on-the-ground realities of public policies. Once an operational approach becomes established within a bureaucracy it has a legitimacy and inertial solidity that requires significant effort to overcome. The Chief Executive gets the headlines, but it’s the people far below who create the reality.
In the deepest sense, American politics are a Tweedledee and Tweedledum affair. No matter which party has control, no matter which person is elected, they will preserve corporate dominance of our economy. They will use the country’s military and economic power to maintain as much of the US’ international supremacy as possible. They will not make the changes need to avoid climate change. Our entire political system, from elections to governance, is set up to ensure this. But there are a wide variety of strategies to achieve these fundamental goals leading to a wide range of policies and an even more decisive difference in how the people who run public agencies actually do their work. Who is in office and the Party they represent does have an impact. This fall, when we vote, we need to remember that the candidates’ clichés are accurate: We are not voting merely for the person, but for the type of America we wish to see.
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