Neal Milner: Elections Are Important, But They're Just A Start - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeIt’s campaign season, and that’s why now’s the time to throw a couple of buckets of cold water on the importance of elections.

With all the hoopla, you’d think elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy. They’re not.

Of course, elections are the essence of democracy, and the Republican Party’s anti-democratic assault on them is an extraordinary threat.

But that doesn’t mean we should put elections on a pedestal. Elections are overrated. They exaggerate the importance of the candidates but undervalue the things that limit what the winning candidate can do after she takes office.

That’s a big deal because ultimately the public good does not depend on whom we elect. It depends on what we get from government.

The link between the candidates’ ideas and what happens to them when they take office and govern is as up in the air and as changeable as the Navy’s Red Hill recovery plans.

Why? Because officeholders, including governors or presidents, have so little power to do what they promised to get done.

For example, every Hawaii gubernatorial candidate has a plan for affordable housing. A voter can choose which one is best, but the real question is how that policy will get off the ground when it depends on a complicated implementation process that is so much outside of the elected leader’s control.

“Here’s the plan. Let her rip!” That may be a candidate’s dream, but a dream is all it is. Beginning right after Election Day, she wakes up and smells the coffee, which has a complex, murky taste.

2022 HNN Debate with left to right, Kai Kahele, Vicky Cayetano and Josh Green held at the Sheraton Hotel.
Candidates on the campaign trail offer plans about how they’ll make things better, but the real question is how those policies will get off the ground. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

And here’s, as they say on ESPN, the one big thing. Governments are supposed to work this way. Campaign rhetoric may say mandate, but the rules say slow down.

As you tried to avoid learning in civics classes, the separation of powers, checks and balances plus federalism make it so.

(Civics class study guide: Key Words — separation, checks.)

The federal government as well as state governments are set up to make it hard to keep campaign promises. The separation of powers is supposed to slow things down, to keep any single leader from being bang-bang definitive.

Campaign Rhetoric Versus Reality

In American Revolution times, it was the difference between Mad King George and Trusted Leader George (Washington).

Basically, this is still true. American government at all levels is constitutionally grounded to make things move deliberatively, to check, and to give other political institutions a chance to weigh in. Call it deliberation, protection against authoritarianism, whatever. It’s also a wonderful way to delay.

Electoral mandates? We don’t recognize no stinking mandates.

To show you what that means for the power of leadership, let me tell you a brief story about the former New York governor Mario Cuomo. (His son Andrew was also New York governor until, well, you know … )

Cuomo the Elder, who was a wonderful orator but terrible administrator, described the difference between campaigning and governing this way:

“Campaigning is poetry. Governing is prose.”

That’s become a maxim. But it’s wrong.

That poetry/prose difference intuitively makes sense, especially if you are among the gazillions of Americans who pay poetry no attention at all.

It matches the common view that poetry is airy-fairy and woo-woo. Flowery rhetoric to brighten a citizen’s day. Working the magic. Spinning the cotton candy to touch the emotions.

Kind of like — careful here — feminine, a time-honored way to dismiss something.

Prose on the other hand, well that’s something else again — concrete and real where the rubber meets the road, rational and masculine (thump chest).

Baloney, Mario.

The maxim should read this way: “Campaigning is woo-woo, and so is governing.”

Politician’s Toolbox

But in governing, the woo-woo is called something else — persuasion, which is the most important, but still wobbly and unpredictable tool in the politician’s toolbox.

This includes the President of the United States, The Leader of the Free World.

Back about the time John F. Kennedy was coming to power, the political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote a classic work on the American presidency.

The essence of presidential power, Neustadt said, is the power to persuade. By implication that means that there are precious few times when a president can or is willing to simply order people to do things.

That was even true for Donald Trump who governed by personal whim and thought he could do anything he wanted but constantly complained that he could not get things to go his way.

You may say, “thank goodness for that,” which is what I say, but that’s not my point here, no matter how important it feels to make it.

The power to persuade is fundamentally important for all leaders at all government levels.

Do you think that Chuck Schumer, Brian Schatz and Joe Biden got Joe Manchin to agree to sign on to the recent climate change bill by ordering him or threatening him?

And speaking of that bill, do you realize how big and complicated the journey is between passing that law and making it work?

Let’s sum up. Elections put the public in the wrong frame of mind by making folks into people persons instead of process persons. It’s a version of the Age of Celebrity applied to politics.

Low Hanging Fruit

Like this: A Democratic voter who is unhappy with Biden recently said this about the president, “I really think Biden needs to work a lot harder on making sure everyone has access to safe abortions. This is an issue that is immediately affecting people, and I don’t think he has a grasp of how big the impact of overturning Roe is.”

These remarks assume that there is a wand that Biden can wave to make things better, like overturning the Supreme Court, stemming the tide of the many states’ anti-abortion legislation. Quit being so lazy and ignorant, Joe.

I don’t want to pick on this voter. “Why doesn’t the president do more?” is a typical and timeless question.

I wish I had a complimentary Hawaiian Airlines Premier Club pass for every time someone said that about former President Barack Obama.

Don’t be cynical about elections. Be wary of them.

Elections are the low hanging fruit of democratic life. They’re visible, public and easy to participate in. But you shouldn’t have any illusions about what they accomplish.

There is a magic about elections, but don’t let that magic cast you in its spell.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: Why Do We Feel Compelled To Get A New Phone Every Year?

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

According to recent polls many Americans believe our democracy is under attack and that belief and issue is becoming more and more important. In order for democracy to work the public must believe in the legitimacy and fairness of elections. Too great a percentage of the Republican Party believes still that Donald Trump really beat Joe Biden.Moreover unlimited PAC monies and massive campaign spending ,fake attack ads,conspiracy theories,undermine our faith in democracy.January 6th may be a preview of the extreme polarization all in the name of "freedom ". As a nation ,we must address and remedy these divisive issues and restore trust

Skips45 · 4 months ago

Elections are only the start but sometimes it can be a disaster. Make voting easy AND cheating hard. Only legal citizens should be allowed to vote according to the U.S. Constitution. Obtaining a valid ID is not difficult despite the racial rhetoric coming from the left. Many nations, including third world countries require a picture ID to vote. Only legal, certifiable, and chain of custody verifiable ballots should count. There's a reason why election integrity is a major issue even among Democrats. It doesn't take one week to count ballots to determine the winner. See France's recent presidential election, they determined the winner on the same day as the election and they only used paper ballots. We as a nation can do much better.

elrod · 4 months ago

How about adopting the sortition process used in many European countries to eliminate the current election process abuse wherein increasingly the national winners at least are largely members of the 1%?

dcf · 4 months ago

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