Life is messy and often overlaps. This means there are many more cross-coalitions at state and local levels, which facilitates the ability of those who disagree to still coexist peacefully and join together for their mutual benefit.
Come election day, most attention is on national races. Vote, the political rhetoric implores, because the cost of losing control of Congress or the White House is too great.
The federal government has become the nation’s primary political problem solver. Increasingly, members of both parties look not to federalist solutions that can be found in state or local levels, but to Congress and the White House for succor.
This amplifies not only the importance of federal elections (as opposed to down ballot races) but impregnates the subtext of election rhetoric with potent emotions.
Elections carry incredibly high stakes: losing control of political power means losing access to the tools that ensure one’s constituents are taken care of and that the loyalty of those who helped secure electoral victory is rewarded. An election loss has not only ideological consequences — public policy becomes guided by an opposing vein of thought –but practical ones as well: the inability to win perhaps means the loss of donors and voters, making it even more difficult to win in future.
For this reason, federal elections — and presidential elections in particular — contain great emotional contrast. When government is seen as a means to securing certain resources, rather than an entity that adjudicates disputes between parties who claim one has wronged the rights of another in some way, personality becomes more important than policy. The emphasis of government action is on the person who makes policy victories possible: on how they fight against those who stand in their way and ultimately triumph.
There is a great high when one’s candidate wins. And a grew low when one’s candidate loses. This is true in policy battles, in general elections, and in primaries.
Voting rationales — the tools political scientists uses to understand why large swathes of the electorate behave the way they do — reinforce looking at elections through this lens. Most voters are not driven by a loyalty to a particular ideology: their response to candidates is driven by emotional satisfaction. Has a president or representative done a job satisfactorily? If a voter thinks so, they’re likely to continue to vote for that party. If they don’t think that politician has, they’re likely to vote for the opposing party. On the whole, new voters also tend to adopt the political positions of either their parents or other adults whom they respect.
In a certain respect, the emotional aspect of voting is national: democratic systems promote ego. Individuals look at the political landscape through the lens of their self-interest and make political choices they think are best calculated to protect and advance their welfare.
So long as the framework of individual rights act as a restrain on government action — preventing one faction’s interests from running roughshod over the rights of another’s — this is not a negative. The exigency of needing to convince another faction of one’s belief facilitates debate and cooperation.
But the moment the stay of the individual rights framework is taken away, debate becomes less constrained and less motivated by a need to come together around an end that all parties agree is to their mutual benefit.
Politicians, charged with providing for their constituents and for their party, enervate life into the organs of government. Their official actions become an extension of their personal beliefs and goals. They win over support not by making a rationale argument that shows skeptics their proposed course of action would create mutual good, but by telling skeptics that a vote against their efforts is a vote for a faction that does not have their good in mind. Inter-factional cooperation is replaced with intra-factional competition: one wins not with the aid of another, but at the expense of another.
There are several contributing factors to this effect. Introducing televised debates within Congress may have begun as an oversight measure, but it has contributed to performance politics: representatives who use their time not to advance an argument but to generate soundbites that show them slamming their political adversaries. These generate feelings of excitement among their supporters, contributing to fundraising efforts.
The rise of digital campaigns has contributed too to rhetorical shortcuts: where short, pithy messages that boost one party by belittling each other stand in place of serious messaging.
This comes at the expense of policy, so much so that even messages attempting to make arguments on the merits are vague and platitudinous.
Take recently nominated Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen, whose campaign inaugurated its messaging by appropriating the #ImWithHer hashtag used by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Predictably, Democrats reacted poorly to this, using the opportunity to rail against the dangers of third parties. Certain libertarians on social media, though, were more concerned with the cheap emotional victory. Jorgensen’s campaign could have reached out to disaffected Democratic voters interested in a female candidate, but instead they chose to score cheap points with voters they had already secured, potentially alienating voters who could help them win come November.
And Jorgensen’s policy advocacy is no less hyperbolic. She recently expressed a desire to abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But, good as this may sound, this is a power the president does not have. The nondelegation doctrine ultimately recognizes that the Constitution gives Congress all legislative powers, which cannot be delegated away. They can, however, be temporarily granted to the executive, so long as there are clear guidelines as to how they may be used. Even then, Congress has the ability to overrule any changes the president enacts.
In the end, there’s no substance to what seems like a bold, decisive policy position from Jorgensen: it’s all about firing up the base.
From a libertarian, this rhetoric is particularly disappointing because this is the only party that still advocates federalism and the delegation of political issues to lower levels of government, where they might be better solved.
Because the nation is so fixated on the federal government’s role as primary political problem solver, it loses sight of local elections: of down ballot races and referendum questions.
In a properly functioning political culture, these priorities would be flipped. The emotionally charged rhetoric which has hollowed out the seriousness of political debate would be better and more meaningfully focused on state and local issues. People live in localities, not at the federal level. The shortcomings of local government have much greater potential to do real harm to the day-to-day quality of life than do the shortcomings of national government.
Politicians are also much more accessible at state and local levels. They live in the communities they govern; they are more directly affected by the laws they make than are federal politicians. Emotional rhetoric channeled at state and local politicians and towards state and local issues is more naturally bounded than it is in federal issues. It is segmented, not all-consuming and emblematic of the broader culture wars. Impassioned citizens might attend school board meetings in droves to let their voices be heard, but their opponents on that issue are not necessarily their opponents on another issue.
Life is messy and often overlaps. This means there are many more cross-coalitions at state and local levels, which facilitates the ability of those who disagree to still coexist peacefully and join together for their mutual benefit. Pluralism benefits not only from the disparate coalitions that form across issues but because ideology is not so rigidly defined on local levels as it is on the federal level.
In a vibrant, pluralistic republic, which recognizes that politics occurs, as does life, in localities, the office of the president is much more irrelevant than is the office of the town manager.
It shouldn’t be national politics that drives people to vote, but state ballot questions and referendums. The sense of exigency that accompanies national elections, rationally, should exist at local levels. The return of a substantive politics, wherein more people can disagree vehemently while still respecting their opponents, requires a return to a political culture wherein states and localities — not Congress and federal agencies — are the primary political problem solvers.