In theory, we elect public officials to run the government.
The government does a lot of things, and public officials make a lot of choices about what it will do. Other choices they make affect how well the government does those things, and how much it costs. But these matters have become less and less central in American politics.
I see two diverging trends.
One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.
Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.
Voters asked for this
I’m not sure how to allocate blame for this among officials and the electorate.
Hillary Clinton, for example, certainly seemed to want a presidential campaign about public policy, and she produced a long list of policy proposals. Arguably, she had too many policy proposals, and the clutter made it hard for any to stand out.
I think the bigger issue is that so many of the proposals were esoteric and disconnected from voters’ daily concerns. One of her key proposals to boost economic growth was a reform of corporate governance to discourage ‘short-termism’ in business investment. There was a lot of substance in her platform, but it was often hard for voters to envision how it would affect them.
Whatever the reason, both Clinton’s supporters and her opponents seemed more interested in talking about how she made them feel than what she said she would do.
This was even more true for candidate Donald Trump, whose most-discussed policy proposal — a border wall, to be paid for by Mexico — was widely acknowledged as more about symbolism than border control. Only 48% of Trump’s own supporters believed he would build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll from last September.
But that didn’t stop him from winning the election.
Arguably, the sweeping nature of President Barack Obama’s vision — hope and change — set him up for failure, too. A president can fix some policy problems but he’s unlikely to change the country that much.
The electorate has been reactive to social trends, not policy
The Obama administration’s main economic policy legacy is a shift of America’s fiscal structure away from the rich and toward the poor.
Obama imposed two large tax increases on high earners, in the form of the Affordable Care Act and the partial expiration of the Bush…