Your Vote didn’t Matter.


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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43 Responses

  1. Avatar gingergene says:

    Hmmm… It seems like you’re saying that things would be virtually no different now than if we had elected John McCain 6 years ago. I know counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but that seems just a little bit of a stretch to believe.

    Also, who in the NSC gave Obama permission to pass the ACA?Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      Different in the margin perhaps, but no real change. Even the candidates have no real difference between them. The bureaucracy stays and is eternal. You go along or get run over. That’s why I laughed at all those who believed in “hope and change”. I knew we’d get little or none.Report

      • Avatar gingergene says:

        I guess you and I define margin a bit differently. Compared to yours, I think my “margins” are the sort of white space a procrastinating high school freshman uses to turn a couple of re-worded paragraphs from Wikipedia into 5 pages on The Great Gatsby.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        In what way is the ACA not a major change? I agree that there’s often fewer real differences than advertised, especially on foreign policy and national security stuff, but this post seems to go too far in the other direction.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        Here’s how I look at it.

        1) healthcare prior to ACA is heavily regulated with a significant portion already gov’t based: medicare, medicaid.
        2) ACA is a natural progression along the lines of more of 1 being pushed to the rest of the population.
        3)the dems and a lot of repubs have been pushing for something similar to what we got for quite a while now.

        It’s it exact? No. Is the trend there? Yep.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        People with absolutely no experience with the DoJ come up with this fucking nonsense.
        Go find someone who can tell you the differences between Obama and Bush’s DoJ. Because in a lot of areas, they’re pretty damn dramatic.

        For the record, the first area that springs to mind is NOT the Civil Rights wing, though it certainly makes the list.Report

  2. Avatar j r says:

    Kudos. You are understanding things in a way that most people simply do not. First of all, you have a large percentage of the electorate who say things that lead me to believe that they think POTUS is some sort of dictator who can rule by fiat. And even once you have gone beyond those people, most of the rest do not seem to grok just how much of our actual governing is done by un-elected bureaucrats and not by elected legislators and executives.

    And this is not necessarily to say that bureaucracy is bad (even though it is), but instead, to point out that most people’s conception of how democracy functions is hopelessly romantic. Stop watching The West Wing and spend some time fully digesting The Wire.Report

    • Avatar aaron david says:

      “. Stop watching The West Wing and spend some time fully digesting The Wire.”

      And @j-r wins the internets.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Take it one step further. Even the bureacracy isn’t immune to change from the outside, or strings being pulled.

      It’s all fine and dandy to say that “Bureacracy rules Everything”. But, quite frankly, that’s bullshit.
      Firesales all over the midwest, and none of them “endorsed by the bureacracy” — though Wall Street certainly seems happy with the bear hunting…Report

  3. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Makes me want a seastead…Report

  4. Avatar LWA says:

    I’m trying to gin up some outrage at the nefarious permanent war bureaucrats who secretly pull the strings wool over the eyes of the elected politicians.

    Except I have to wonder, where do they draw such power? What causes elected politicians to quail in fear at the thought of crossing the Pentagon?

    Isn’t there a political meme that is pounded again and again, day after day, of accusing the President (any President) of ignoring the generals and foolishly hollowing out our sacred military and betraying the heroic troops of our beloved fatherland and on and on and on.

    I mean, when we have deified the military and made sacred anyone with a uniform, and every minor skirmish in any corner of the world becomes an existential threat to America, how could the national security bureaucrats assume anything less than total power?Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko says:

      Exactly. In theory, the president and congress is capable of firing these Trumanites, reducing funding for the national security bureaucracy, engaging in aggressive oversight, etc. They don’t because it’s abundantly clear that the public doesn’t care about being spied upon by the NSA or dropping bombs on wedding parties in Pakistan for the foreseeable future and side with the national security establishment against any politician that really tries to confront it head on.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        I think it’s more likely that the NSA has dirt on them and they tow the line like the good biatches they are.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        I think it’s most likely that it is hazardous to make real decisions.

        Faux decisions have intellectual cover. They’re made with the Advice of Serious People.

        Real decisions require you to put your neck out and say, “Regardless of the Advice of these Serious People, I am going to do this other thing”.

        I will say this for George Bush, he was a decider. He got plenty of people to resign in protest.

        I don’t particularly agree with most of the decisions that he made, but eh.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        He got plenty of people to resign in protest.

        Not… really.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Damon and Patrick are both right.
        Wikileaks is exactly the democracy that we need, in this new age.
        Attacks of conscience are fairly common in bureacracies…Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Michael Drew,
        Yes, really. A lot of the moderate Republicans in our national security apparatus left, and took up corporate espionage/counter-espionage.

        Then there’s the DoJ Civil Rights dept. — most of your daffy Democrats “resigned” under heavy pressure from management.Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The ‘establishment’ (my term for what you’re using the NSC as a proxy) only controls foreign policy to the extent that the public doesn’t give a fig about foreign policy. That extent goes pretty far, almost to the horizon, but has a sharp boundary when the public sees Americans dying in wars. (it’s not sufficient for the other poor bastards to be endlessly dying.)

    There was a sharp difference in policy wrt Iraq between Obama and McCain in 2008. And the majority of people by that point (they were more than ready by 2006) were well behind Obama’s Iraq policy. And you know, that’s the policy that was implemented.

    There were fewer differences on Afghanistan policy, but Obama never said he was against the war in Afghanistan. Just the opposite, his stated policy was always that Iraq was a distraction and if we kept our eye on the ball in Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be a mess, and he was going shift all those NSC staffers (and everyone else in the government) from Iraq work to Afghanistan work. (which he basically did).

    I also think that Woodward excerpt that another option ‘never came’ is inaccurate. Even back in the West Point Dec 2009 speech, he talked about starting to drawdown in 2011, and then later (famously) set a end date for the conclusion of combat operations. The trajectory for final troop presence is somewhere in the 8-15K range (maybe) but whatever it is, it’s definitely going to be less than the 32K that were there at his inauguration – which wasn’t the plan he was presented in that excerpt. (as for everyone going to resign over Obama’s decision, well, Obama should have called their bluffs. As it was, the actual difference between the requested troop levels and Obama’s entering assumptions were rather small, except for the kitchen sink shoot the moon 80K request)Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      That’s, um, why he didn’t call for their resignations. Being willing to say “here’s what I believe, please don’t mess with it for political reasons” is being a straight shooter in Washington. Believe it or not, we do have damn fine logisticians in the military, and they’re not generally willing to risk more lives than necessary.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Right, but this vignette is most likely total BS, from a source (probably this guy) telling tales out of school – i.e. he put words into Petraeus’s, McCrystal’s etc mouth, and the “might” in “might resign” was the weaselist of weasel words

        There are good lessons on the nature of the foreign and military affairs bureaucracy in the development and implementation of Afghanistan policy in the first 2 years of the Obama administration, but this was not it.Report

  6. Avatar Pyre says:

    So you’re saying that George W. Bush probably didn’t want to go to war in Iraq but the Trumanites told him “Well, since we’re going into Afghanistan anyway and Iraq has been making deals that may be detrimental to American power, you’re going to go to war in Iraq …. now.”?

    Interesting theory but some hard evidence is needed to keep this off the conspiracy board.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    It now occurs to me that maybe he does care about these things but just finds himself unable to change government policy.</blockquote?

    Mulling it over more, I want to push back on this again, and who is supreme between the 'Madisonites' and the 'Trumanites'

    Every foreign policy and national security policy decision/action taken over the previous 6 years has been made with the participation of President Obama, and most with his assent. Ditto with the last guy to sit behind that desk. The Madisonian system's Decider is making the decisions. Not the bureaucracy.

    Letting Iraq SOFA negotiations peter out, raising the level of engagement in Afghanistan and then decreasing it, giving the green light to the OBL raid (and contingencies), elevating the intensity of drone strikes against alleged Al Qaeda forces, seeking to heal the rift with Russia over Georgia and other Bush-era policies, increasing diplomatic pressure on Russia over Ukraine, seeking engagement with Bashar Assad, pulling the ambassador to Syria over Assad's reaction to the Arab Spring, putting forces in striking range of Syria when it used chemical weapons, standing down those forces when Assad said he'd turn over the chemical weapons (and when the UK dropped out of the operational coalition), striking Gadaffi's forces in Libya, mostly walking away afterwards, supporting anti-Mubarak forces in Egypt, supporting the government that replaced Morsi, sending troops to help some African governments fight Kony, sending troops to help some African governments fight Ebola, striking ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria – all these crossed Obama's desk and have his assent, and wouldn't have, couldn't have been done without it. Just the fact that many of these policies have flitted to and fro in the span of a single Administration manifestly demonstrate that it's the political leadership that setting policy.

    The only two things that Obama has wanted to do but hasn't are close Gitmo and do something about climate change. But it isn't the bureaucracy blocking those, it's the other Madisonites in Congress.Report

  8. Avatar James K says:

    Sorry but I’m not buying it.

    This is a very Yes, Minister style argument – it doesn’t matter what Jim Hacker wants because Sir Humphrey really runs the show. The problem with this analogy is Yes, Minister was set in England, not the US. Gates is not some Cabinet Minister who is too powerful in caucus to reprimand, nor is he a Sir Humphrey that cannot be fired.

    Furthermore even neglecting the differences in our systems, I have a hard time seeing most Prime Ministers putting up with an attitude like that for very long. Muldoon would have shouted and thrown things in response to a situation like the Gates anecdote. I can’t even conceive of what Helen Clark would have done in response, mostly because I can’t imagine someone being suicidal enough to try it. Note that in Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey lost far more often than he did in Yes, Minister.

    The same goes for the story about the Justice Department not briefing Obama. One of the basic principals of bureaucracy is “no surprises”, for the Justice Department to make a decisions contrary to Obama’s own campaign speeches without so much as giving him advance notice is a major failure of the bureaucracy and Obama should have raised hell over it.

    I don’t mean to suggest the President will always get his way – if the judiciary or legislature block him, he can hardly be blamed as his powers are limited there. But his job is to get the Executive Branch supporting his decision-making and if he can’t do so then he is not competent to be President, and he should never have stood for a second term.Report

    • Avatar Patrick says:

      Point of fact, McChrystal got very fired.Report

    • The same goes for the story about the Justice Department not briefing Obama. One of the basic principals of bureaucracy is “no surprises”, for the Justice Department to make a decisions contrary to Obama’s own campaign speeches without so much as giving him advance notice is a major failure of the bureaucracy and Obama should have raised hell over it.

      I don’t mean to suggest the President will always get his way – if the judiciary or legislature block him, he can hardly be blamed as his powers are limited there. But his job is to get the Executive Branch supporting his decision-making and if he can’t do so then he is not competent to be President, and he should never have stood for a second term.

      I think it really depends on the bureaucracy. Some bureaucracies are so vast and varied that it’s hard for the most competent president to exercise control or nudge them to support his decision making. I imagine it probably takes at least one term just to get to the point where he can start doing that.

      And bureaucracies operate according to incentives imposed by their creators (usually Congress, for US federal bureaucracies) and by certain ways of doing things. Add to that the fact that huge numbers of the bureaucracy are civil service or otherwise non-political servants means he can’t always wield the threat of firing.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        I’ve had personal experience of a change in government from a bureaucracy level view and while a lot of stuff takes time to steer, the high-priority policy direction stuff changes quite quickly because the new government insists that it does. Obama could have asked for a briefing on the State Secrets cases the day he was sworn in. He could have ordered the Justice Department to abandon these cases at that time. If he really wanted to stop the State Secrets cases he could have done it, but he’s either too bad at managing to to that or he wasn’t prepared to make it a priority and neither speak well of him.Report

  9. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    I think this overstates the power of the bureaucracy, in part by treating it as a monolithic entity. Even within the foreign policy sphere, there are plenty of intra-departmental or inter-departmental bureaucratic fights that the elected officials (president, or president+legislature) end up settling. So for instance, what department takes the lead on a certain issue, where resources go to address a certain issue, which outlook prevails on a certain issue…

    Big questions like, what should the US posture be towards Iran? China? Russia? That sort of stuff can be thought about and prepared on the bureaucratic/departmental level, but the big decisions are going to be made at the presidential level. And the electeds can always direct the bureaucrats to think again. The bureaucrats have some tools on their side, but so do the electeds. One thing that isn’t mentioned, Obama nominated Gates. There are a number of people qualified to be SecDef and Obama could have chosen differently (personally, I think it is well past time that Democrat presidents chose a Democratic for the job). A for instance, Samantha Power and Susan Rice as US Ambassador to the UN or someone like, say, John Bolton. Or for instance, the US withdrawing from Kyoto or sending high level delegations to negotiate on climate change. Another big tool, the power over the budget being the power to destroy. The bureaucrats have maximum power in the corners where the electeds aren’t paying attention. But the gaze of the president (or committee chairs) is a powerful tool in and of itself.

    Second point, “Glennon goes on. He takes his time as Obama’s failings are numerous.” So, differences of opinion about the scope and limits of presidential power are not “failings”, they are differences of opinion. It isn’t inherently a failing, necessarily, that a certain presidential power gets interpreted as A instead of as B. You, and Glennon, may very well think B is manifestly the right perspective to take on war making powers, but that the Obama administration chooses otherwise doesn’t mean that Obama failed. Or at minimum, there’s quite a bit more work to be done in making the “failings” case.

    Last, yes, the way American government is taught in high school is a simplification. But finding complexity doesn’t mean we’re suddenly ruled by a class of unchallenged and unchallengeable Mandarins, it just means that politics is complicated. Lots of players holding lots of cards.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      Big questions like, what should the US posture be towards Iran? China? Russia? That sort of stuff can be thought about and prepared on the bureaucratic/departmental level, but the big decisions are going to be made at the presidential level.

      The problem with this conception is that you are asserting that there is a difference between the “big questions” and the bureaucratic questions. The big questions are, at their heart, bureaucratic questions. That difference is an illusion. The President can make a speech high on ideals, but he then immediately turns to the bureaucracy to operationalize those ideals.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Bureaucracy is most powerful in the shadows.
        You should see what sorts of plans the military has for “what if we get in a REAL war”…
        They actually keep lists of combat competent military officers, because they understand that in peacetime it’s the asskissers who make general.

        Repricing flood insurance is a great story of the bureaucracy fixing a real problem — helping people get real price-estimates for where they’ll be living.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        No Kim, it’s the ass-kissers (and some good people) *with* combat experience that get promoted. That’s why the women in combat thing matters, institutionally. If some jobs are closed to a certain set of people, and performance in those jobs is the most important factor in promotion to the highest level, you’re never going to have those certain people in those highest ranks. Unless you just short-circuit the process, which annoys everyone even more.

        The permanent, *non-military* bureaucracy has very little say on the promotion and assignment of military officers. There is no one outside administrative assistant type positions to keep any such lists. Plus, the up or out system limits the time anyone (ion active duty) can just hang around, waiting for the next war.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “The problem with this conception is that you are asserting that there is a difference between the “big questions” and the bureaucratic questions”

        There is certainly a difference. The bureaucracy, by itself, isn’t going to, say, end the trade embargo with Cuba. However, if the President (by reversing course on his annual statement on the Trading with the Enemy Act) or Congress (by repealing and/or superseding Helms-Burton) declare that it’s over, *then* the bureaucracy will spring into action to phase out restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba. But even then, they will only do so to the extent that either the President or Congress has enabled them through executive order or legislation.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        apologies. I hadn’t meant to imply that people were getting promoted without being in combat units, just that it was rarely the criterion for success.

        Of course it’s the military bureaucracy keeping those lists. They’re for emergencies,and the military specialises in emergency planning (see: Department of Deer Warfare). If needed, they are perfectly capable of talking people out of their civvie clothes, too, but I imagine this is more to get the correct Colonels into General seats.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        The Cuba trade embargo is a very special animal. It is something that is being kept alive by an odd combination of conservatives hawks and a rabid community of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans

        Most areas of foreign policy don’t have that sort of organic support or such explicitly worded legislation and executive orders that constrain what the government can do. Most areas of foreign policy are a much more improvisational collaboration between the executive, the legislature and the bureaucracy.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Kim, who is that military bureaucracy, who are impersonal *they* in this case? The FOGOs are the ones picking the O-6s that ascend to their ranks, and it’s the political appointees (and the Senate) that approve them – not the permanent bureaucracy* (though normally through negation). GS-15s and SESs are only involved in a strictly administrative capacity. Once in you’re in that club, it’s the political appointees (and the elected guy/gal) that then elevate you to the highest levels through assignments.

        *the thing to always keep in mind, despite some people being able to burrow or homestead, (and the quirky case of Naval Reactors and probably some others) uniformed service members are generally only in a given assignment from 2-4 years. So they are by most definitions, not part of the permanent bureaucracy (but are definitely part of the bureaucracy and establishment)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        The strategists and logisticians, wherever the Military is stashing them this week. Some are in DARPA (you should see the ones working on mitigating the effects of global warming to our military readiness), some in every single branch and probably a good passel in Intelligence,

        They. Get. Bored. So they come up with all sorts of crazy plans (How to Invade Canada! How to Conquer Russia! … etc. etc).

        If a president ever really cared about a plan, he gets who he considers tops to write it. Wes Clarke’s plan for invading Afghanistan worked pretty well (Clinton was well aware that it was a problem region — bored presidents also start working on contingencies). Pity no one had a ready-made plan for the occupation…Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “Most areas of foreign policy are a much more improvisational collaboration between the executive, the legislature and the bureaucracy.”

        I agree totally with that. And that the ability to operationalize (man, that’s a word I haven’t heard in a while) a Big Idea is what separates Ted talk 3 tea cup good idea pixies from people that actually have an understanding on how things are done, and thus, how to get things done.

        I would further add that the differences in Big Ideas in the two major parties are very narrow these day (as Nob Akimoto pointed out in Rand Paul’s speech the other day), and *that* is what may make it seem like the politicians aren’t in charge.

        But there are Big Questions and Big Ideas out there for anyone to claim, if they really wanted to. It’s just that the proverbial walls we’ve built now that form the bulwark of US foreign policy decisions? Most candidates want to be on the wall, they need to be on that wall.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Kim, I’ll just conclude by saying that’s not how J-5 works, either at the Pentagon or at the COCOMs.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Pity no one had a ready-made plan for the occupation…

        Oh, I expect there was. But the price tag was so high that no one ever mentioned it in public.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yeah, you’re undoubtedly right about that.
        I don’t think Clinton ever gave serious thought to occupying Afghanistan, even in a hypothetical…
        So, a dusty plan…
        (Canada’s plan to invade America is actually kinda fun, and pretty solid. I’m pretty sure they’ve got a sticker on it; “To be deployed in the event of a nascent Ice Age”)Report

  10. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    Odd notions informing the post and this discussion as to how elections or “the popular vote” should or is supposed to matter in the American system. That they are popular notions is itself one major reason why it doesn’t and can’t matter in that way, or in other words why those notions are from the perspective of American constitutionalism held to be wrong notions, according to a logic that on reflection people generally but not necessarily dependably may come to accept, as the blogger himself at times shows himself willing at least to consider.

    No need to get bitter about it.Report

  11. Avatar Tim Ellis says:

    I don’t think the existence of a bureau of unelected civil servants is inherently undemocractic, nor does it make your vote irrelevant. I live in Canada, and the bulk of government is unelected civil servants (and our government is a lot more involved in day to day affairs than US government). Despite this, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who thought we had a less responsive or democratic government than yours, Harper’s missteps notwithstanding. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that the European model is generally closer to Canada’s than to America’s as well.

    I think there is something unique to the makeup of American power structures and American culture that is wholly counter to democracy as we know it and prefer it and it is the expression of that which you are seeing here. My pet theory is that capitalism has subverted democracy (the two are at odds intrinsically, in my opinion) but there are certainly many factors at play.Report