The Day after Tomorrow: Why This Election Won’t Change Anything

by Benjamin Studebaker

There is a tremendous amount of excitement and exuberance about the American elections tomorrow, but the trends, and recent history in particular, indicate that this excitement is perhaps undeserved. Over the last half century, the United States government has become less and less capable of actually governing the country and doing things, and there is no better example of the trend in action than what the last two years of divided government have produced. Of course, these are just empty assertions without evidence, but evidence we have indeed.

In the United States, the level of polarity between the two political parties, not necessarily in actual policy, but certainly in attitude, has increased. The two parties are much less willing to work with one another than they used to be, and they have an incentive to behave this way because their respective bases do not want them to unnecessarily give an inch. How do we know this? The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein has the figures that demonstrate “party unity”, or the tendency for the members of the two parties to vote as a bloc against one another:

What we can see here is that the trend over the last half century has been toward more bloc voting. There’s nothing wrong with bloc voting in itself–in many European countries, political parties routinely bloc vote. However, in those countries the party in government has a guarantee of winning a bloc vote because it has an overall legislative majority. The British Prime Minister is by definition the leader of a voting bloc or coalition of voting blocs that amounts to the majority of the votes in the legislature.

In contrast, in the United States the government is routinely divided between an executive branch from one party and one or both of the houses of congress from the opposing party. In the case of the last session of congress, the democrats controlled the presidency and the senate while the republicans controlled the house. Control of the senate is sometimes not even sufficient, because of the senate’s filibuster rules that allows a member of the minority to filibuster to delay a vote indefinitely without a super majority (60 votes) opposing the filibuster. As a resulting, even a united government that controls both houses of congress and the presidency can struggle to get things done against a united opposition party that bloc votes. This proved deadly to the democrats’ ambitions even before the mid-term election after their majority in the senate dipped below sixty with the death of Ted Kennedy, proving to be the bane of Obamacare’s public option. With divided government, it has increasingly become impossible either political party to achieve major political objectives. We’re in a stalemate.

Of course, this claim can be proven as well. Again, from Ezra, we can see that over the course of the last half century the number of bills that congress has been able to get enacted as laws has steadily declined as the tendency for the parties to bloc vote has increased:

There is more or less a steady trend line going downward. At the time this data was taken, the most recent congress (the blip on the far right of the chart) was three quarters finished, yet had not yet reached even half the level of productivity of the least productive previous session of congress. Why on earth we should expect the result of this election to upend this trend? As we discussed yesterday, Obama is likely to win the election. There’s no chance of a democratic super majority in the senate and the house will probably be retained by the republicans. Even if Romney were to pull of the miracle and get the win, the republicans are unlikely to take the senate, much less grab a super majority there. There is no reason to believe that the next government will be able to achieve any more in the next two years than were achieved in the last two, and aside from an extension of the payroll tax cut, an obvious move during a period of weak job growth, the principle “achievement” of this past session of congress has been to drive the country toward the dreaded fiscal cliff. Where is the change supposed to come from? Is the democracy fairy supposed to descend from the sky and magically empower the next president and the next congress to cooperate?

Lots of people would have you believe that this is the most important election in history, for a variety of reasons. Lots of people haven’t been paying attention. No mater which way things go tomorrow, I forecast a stagnant, and ultimately deeply conservative government (not in the reactionary “take us back to the twenties” sense but in the sense that it will preserve the status quo) that acts only in times of obvious emergency.

In a wider view, this is quite troubling–we live in a world that’s moving faster, changing faster, and we have a government that is instead getting slower, a government that dithers and squabbles rather than achieves. Sooner or later, that loss of dynamism and adaptability is going to come back to haunt the United States and its people, if it is not doing so already–anaemic growth of jobs and the wider economy in response to the economic crisis likely stems from this very problem, this inability to take decisive action. Remember this?

It was not passed right away–in fact, it never went anywhere, and if you think that if it had been Romney up there trying to pass a tax cut for rich people to do the whole trickle down thing, it would have been different, you’re fooling yourself. So don’t get your hopes up–when we look at the American political landscape the day after tomorrow, none of us–democrat or republican–are likely to find anything to get very excited about.