Every summer Hollywood churns out big-budget blockbusters that feature omnipotent superheroes who defy the rules of reality that confound mortals. The main characters in these stories can fly, defeat powerful forces of evil, change their physical appearance in an instant, and win the admiration of the local public as well as their attractive co-stars.
There is another type of superhero currently featured throughout our media. These superheroes are equally as fanciful as the Hollywood versions, but command a much larger budget. They are known as “candidates”, and they are primarily featured in elections for President or Congress. You may have noticed them if you’ve watched television or turned on your computer recently.
In this fantasy world, half of them (the heroes) are trying to help “working families”, while the other half (the villains) are “extremists”.
There is one problem, however. Since they often look like average citizens, it can be difficult for voters to tell when one of these candidates has assumed superhero qualities. After all, the heroes of film give us ample evidence that they are no longer the kid next door or the corporate mogul in his penthouse by changing into some sort of amazing outfit that often involves tights and a cape.
So how are voters expected to tell when a normal candidate has shape-shifted and become omniscient and all-powerful? Here the giveaway: they exhibit the belief that their personal opinion on a variety of issues will actively and directly shape public policy.
If an visitor unfamiliar with the United States’ system of government were to arrive during our election-season barrage of television ads, unhinged talk shows, and overwrought Facebook posts, they would conclude that voters were in fact electing superheroes with unchecked powers rather than members of a tripartite system of government that can only get legislation passed via two separate chambers of a cantankerous congress.
In the recent senate primaries, a candidate appearing in a television commercial said he had “a plan to balance the budget”. Astute voters recognize this as classic superhero talk. Non-superhero senators, of course, would be constrained by the 435 representatives in the House as well as the other 99 members of the Senate (not to mention the president) to actually balance the budget.
But this election season! Voters are looking for pizzazz and panache, not boring reflections on how legislation actually occurs. Authors and filmmakers refer to this as the “willing suspension of disbelief”, and it is vital for viewers – excuse me, voters – to set difficult questions aside in order to sit back and enjoy the story.
Nowhere is this more evident than the mass delusion our country routinely undergoes concerning the power of the presidency. Voters perhaps cling to the notion that the job is similar to that scene in the movie Dave, where a citizen becomes an acting president and then calls a press conference announcing that he is going to make sure every American has a job.
In fact, presidents have few levers at their disposal that make a near-term impact on a cyclical economy. While presidents have great powers to commit the country to wars and can significantly affect foreign policy, when it comes to creating jobs or making substantive changes to the tax code presidents are often defeated by forces outside their control or by the very nature of our fractious legislative process.
But that won’t stop the candidates from talking about how they will create jobs or shift the tax burden to benefit the middle class – and in this case, “middle class” means “viewers of political commercials” since studies show that Americans overwhelmingly view themselves as members of the middle class, even if they aren’t.
So, assuming this next election results in regular candidates being elected instead of fantasy characters that can create jobs with the stroke of a pen, here are a couple predictions concerning what will happen in the coming years regardless of which candidates win: Outside of extraordinary circumstances, the next president will not commit the country to a new war; troop levels in Afghanistan will significantly decline as planned; the economy will slowly improve, although employment numbers among the less educated will lag; income disparity will be slightly worse than it is today regardless of what happens to the tax code; and Obamacare may be tinkered with, but will not be repealed.
Of course, I might be wrong about every one of those predictions. After all, I’m not a superhero.
Published August, 2012