The Vetocracy and Celebrity Presidents

(A bit of a half-baked hypothesis)

In terms of the sheer number of veto players, the American political system is an outlier among contemporary democracies. It has become unbalanced and in certain areas has acquired too many checks and balances, which raise the costs of collective action, sometimes making it impossible altogether. It is a system that might be labeled a vetocracy… in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

— Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay (p. 493)

Fukuyama warns that a vetocracy can usher in an authoritarian strongman, because the public yearns for someone who can get things done. But another danger is that it augments the rise of purely symbolic voting. A savy voter realizes neither candidate will be able to implement much of their policy agenda anyway, so all that matters is how the politician makes them feel. Do they give good speeches? Do they condemn the right things? What does making them president say about America? When competence to get things done doesn’t really matter, we end up swapping competence for symbolism and showmanship.

Not all voters are so savy (or, more charitably, so cynical). Many voters will still choose the candidate with the most appealing policy agenda. But in an era of gridlock, policies never get implemented anyway. Add to this a general distrust of experts, and it becomes very difficult for the public to judge policies on their merits. They never get to see what happens when policies are implemented, and they don’t trust the assertions of the expert class.

This is a recipe for an arms race. If voters can’t judge the likely impact of a policy, a candidate supporting “magic” policies will do better than someone who supports realistic policies. Magic policies sound better.

Trump is a good illustration of both ends of this dynamic. To savy/cynical voters, a lot of his appeal is the message he sends and the kind of person he is. He’s a thumb in the eye of an elite that is perceived to not respect the voter. He knows how to put on a show. And to unsavy/hopeful voters, his policies sound amazing. He’ll build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it! He’ll cut taxes to 15% and the economy will grow at 6%! He’ll get tough on terror and it will all go away! He’ll destroy ISIS without getting us involved in a major ground war! He’ll repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that’s cheaper and provides healthcare for all!

The unexpectedly strong showing of Bernie Sanders could also be read as an illustration of these trends. Compared to Bernie, Hillary was the candidate of executive experience, with the less extreme policy agenda (although she had her own symbolic strength as a candidate). But I know at least one voter who explicitly told me, given that neither Hillary nor Bernie would be able to legislate while facing an opposition congress, she would prefer the candidate who at least espouses her ideals: Sanders.

Lastly, you could argue that Obama was a step on the path towards purely symbolic voting. He was definitely a wonderful symbolic choice. He gave great speeches. And though he did accomplish a lot, he also promised some unobtainable things — for example, that a new bipartisan era was imminent.

And yet the vetocracy holds. The policies of Obama and Trump that were never implemented can never disappoint us.

Where do we go from here? Maybe we will get so fed up with gridlock that we will implement some kind of reform that reduces the number of veto points in the system (for good or ill). Maybe one party will splinter and hand the other such a lock on the government that veto points are irrelevant. Maybe a war will break out and these problems will seem a luxury.

But if the vetocracy continues, then showmanship and magical policies will continue to be a winning formula for presidential candidates. This bodes poorly for post-partisan candidates who come from the world of business rather than the media (think Bloomberg and Zuckerberg). It bodes well for politicians with a flair for showmanship or a background in entertainment (Al Franken?). And it opens up a niche for celebrities who have cultivated a broadly popular off-camera persona (think Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Oprah, and Tom Hanks; sorry Kanye).