If you want to understand American elections, read a comic book.
Now, you won’t learn much about how politics happens. Politics doesn’t have clear villains or decisive, powerful action. Politics muddles along on a heavily adulterated biofuel composed of interpersonal favor-trading, compromised ideology, soul-sucking proceduralism, and ponderous interest-group mobilization.
But elections — that’s where your back issues of Action Comics will come in handy. They tell you a lot about what voters think.
Voters rally to get a candidate elected, then call on the politician to stop technological change from tanking the local economy, to give them much more generous health care at half the cost of whatever they’ve currently got, to cut their taxes without touching Social Security or Medicare because they earned those benefits, to provide large new entitlements paid for entirely by taxing hedge fund managers, to reform the education system so that all the students will be above average, to defuse conflict in the Middle East and maybe leap some tall buildings in a single bound. You know, the usual.
Time passes. These voters notice that these things have not been done. Obviously, they have elected the wrong superhero. It is time to stop messing around with Squirrel Girl and Jack of Hearts and elect Superman, already. So the story starts all over again.
The tendency of American voters to treat political problems as if they were occurring in an alternate universe was first noted during the Iraq war debate by Matthew Yglesias, now executive editor of the Vox website. Yglesias coined the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, in which the U.S. military has unlimited powers if only it is wielded by someone with sufficient will; Julian Sanchez expanded this to the home front with the Care Bear Stare Theory of Domestic Politics: “They’d line up together and emit a glowing manifestation of their boundless caring, which seemed capable of solving just about any problem.” Sound familiar? If only people cared enough.
What we need, in other words, is not some image-conscious politician who is going to assemble some halfhearted compromise by horse-trading with various interest groups; instead, we need a hero with the will to make things happen, perhaps bolstered by a patriotic band of citizens who will stand behind him caring their little hearts out.
Unfortunately, this is not a very good description of the real world. And when all the caring and the willing fails, people start talking crazy. Faced with the unhappy reality that their desired outcomes are simply not achievable in the current political landscape, they embrace extreme, destructive measures that have no chance of succeeding. The only thing that can be said for many of these ideas is that they haven’t been tried yet. The same can be said for picking up this fork I happen to have sitting next to me and jamming it into my brainstem.
The core problem, of course, is the inability to conceive the dismaying possibility that our greatest desires simply cannot be realized. During the debt ceiling showdown, I must have had the same argument dozens of times with conservatives who favored a shutdown. I would point out that they were losing the political battle, and that moreover, the deficit was so large that a straight shutdown would require us to do things like shutter immigration enforcement, leave the troops stranded in Iraq and close federal prisons. They would respond that they had no choice, because nothing else they had tried had resulted in the shrinkage of the government to the size they desired. They had not elected Superman. Harsh realization.
As predicted, the debt ceiling showdown completely failed to advance the Republican agenda. This was easy to see — if you didn’t assume that the problem was a lack of superheroes who were finally willing to get out there and take down some villains.
But I don’t want to pick on conservatives especially; the debt ceiling mess was certainly debacletacular, but I’ve had similar versions of this conversation with innumerable liberals over the years. And it’s exactly what I’m hearing from Donald Trump supporters now. Take immigration: I happen to think that their beliefs about the economic harms of immigration are empirically incorrect. Immigrants play little to no role in the wage decline among lower-skilled native-born American males. Even the role of trade is marginal compared to the impact of automation.
But let’s look past what seems to be motivating these voters. The goals they have in mind aren’t illegitimate: to see value in a lower level of immigration, to wish that Asian markets were as open to our goods as ours are to theirs, or to think that more should be done to prevent people from entering this country illegally.
But Trump’s supporters seem to think that he will somehow escape the constraints that have prevented other politicians from addressing those priorities, because finally here we have a candidate with sufficient will and imagination to unleash the full powers of the presidential Green Lantern ring. End birthright citizenship! Get Mexico to pay to build a wall! Force companies to build more stuff here! How? By being really tough. Don’t ask for details.
That might work in elections. But then politics is all details. And each of those tiny little details has to be endlessly negotiated, because the system is set up precisely to frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea. You may recall your middle school social studies teacher talking about “checks and balances.” This is what that looks like. Kryptonite, if you will.
So there is no shortcut around the long days spent debating whether the tax credit should be 3.45 percent or 3.65 percent, and drafting pages of legislation that amend some obscure subclause of the immigration code to read “that” rather than “which,” and ending up with a middling, pork-riddled program that costs too much and doesn’t do anything close to what its visionary proponents promised.
Governing is not like building a building; it’s not like running a business. It’s like, well, trying to herd three branches of government in roughly the same direction. These branches are composed of thousands of people, each of whom has their own agenda, and represents millions more, each of whom has their own agenda, and will hound out of office anyone who strays too far from it. This is a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to do anything, which is why I am a libertarian; almost anything can be done better when you’re not trying to build it by a committee.
But in a representative democracy, this is what we have. There is no superhero strong enough to overcome the villain. There is actually not even a villain to defeat, only the unslayable amoeboid agglomeration of 300 million citizens’ worth of unenlightened self-interest. In the immortal words of P.J. O’Rourke: “Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.”