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Elections matter even when history stands still

Pierre Goubert famously described Louis XIV, the man who dominates 17th century foreign policy and chapter 6 of most European history textbooks, as a giant gesticulating insect. Goubert used the image to show that while Louis was busy playing on battle fields and in bedrooms, peasants still lived, breathed, and ate bread. The sun still rose onto similar days. Around the time that Goubert wrote about pre-revolutionary France, Pete Townsend made a similar observation about 1960’s America: “I tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution…pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday…”

Goubert called this phenomenon “history that stands still,” but he was French and an academic, so we (Pete included) can think of it as simply “people live their lives, just like yesterday.” This is especially important to remember in the immediacy of another presidential election. Obama may have won but assignments are still due and groceries still need purchasing.

In fact, on Obama’s first round of presidency, that things did not “change enough,” in the easily assessed material terms, disillusioned many. Four years later, a college education is still expensive, gas and food prices still fluctuate to uncomfortably high levels, and taxes must still be paid. Even the flagship health care reform, designed to materially change lives, will not fully go into effect for another year. Essentially, people found that history does stand still and, disappointed as they may have been, people moved on with their lives and then, once again, voted.

The marginal instead of major change of the past four years does not signal defunct leadership but the design of the American political system. The constitution was written and implemented so that no one person, or single group of people, could monopolize the government. As a result, we have a system that requires 60% agreement so that no one takes to the floor and talks until recess months later, which makes it very hard to make any change happen. Or consider this, if Louis XIV, considered the prototypical absolute monarch, couldn’t affect a peasant’s life, what more can someone who doesn’t make laws but signs them do?

To win election in modern day America seems to require promising positive change to some demographic. To lead a system purposely designed to make change difficult requires convincingly claiming a degree of exceptionalism. No wonder people are so (un)happy when their candidate does(n’t) win: that candidate alone had the grease for the wheel. While unmet expectations certainly justify annoyance, candidates simply play into people’s biases: who would vote for the “history stands still” platform?

It seems possible that emotional reactions to leadership will only increase, even when a leader’s capacity to make a change happen remains constant. Modern day news media allows people to connect with leaders, which often creates some amount of emotional attachment. Cable news, for example depends on people’s engagement; viewership depends on history standing up and shaking every person’s life. Those who wish to can very easily receive information about the goings-on on capitol hill and elsewhere. Even with evidence to the contrary, some people begin to believe that a policy change will have a material impact.

When emotions run particularly high, those who do not follow politics may provide the most rational company. Their concerns are likely the same as they were yesterday and their “ignorance” has the support of at least one academic.

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