This article is part of a response to “The Question”.
It is not often that simply caring about something in this country causes any grave harm. With regards to those Canadians invested in the outcomes of American presidential elections, this is doubly true. At the very worst, passing comment on the seemingly constant candidate debate schedule or self-righteously posting exaggerated poll results on Facebook every week is likely only to bore everyone around you.
‘Should’ is a difficult word; I’m not willing to argue in favour of U of T students avoiding the ongoing American presidential election campaign simply because there is no real obligation to pay attention. Really, students don’t need to care about the American presidential election for an entirely different reason: because it doesn’t matter.
It’s not that the election just doesn’t matter to Canadians specifically either; the campaign is generally of little consequence to most audiences when we remember that, in the American system of checks and balances, the President wields surprisingly little power. It doesn’t really matter who comes to occupy the presidency at the end of this cycle because whoever they are, they will remain a relatively small though not completely inconsequential piece in the machine that is American government.
This isn’t a matter of political cynicism; hamstringing the executive branch of the American government is written into the design of the whole system, and it shows. President Obama’s most meaningful domestic legislative success thus far was the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a sweeping health care socialization initiative most notable for, in fact, not socializing health care. On all other political priorities — from gun control in the face of multiple mass shootings to emissions control in the face of climate change — America has made minimal legislative progress in the last eight years.
What matters in America is congress — which is akin to our parliament — in that it actually creates and votes on the country’s legislation. The ACA, for instance, was passed by a clean party line vote in the senate (all voting democrats voted ‘yes’ and all voting republicans voted ‘no’). The American executive, so intently focused on one individual, is the most digestible branch of the federal government, but all of its notoriety is worth nothing when compared to the actual power wielded by congress.
One only needs to look at the number of articles and studies concerning political gridlock in the US to see how weak the US President is in the face of a hostile congress, not to mention how the US government shut down for more than two weeks in 2013, because two chambers of congress failed to pass resolutions concerning the appropriation of funds for the 2014 fiscal year.
This is on top of the well-trodden issue that the American legislative agenda is controlled to an enormous degree by political donors. Influence is exerted overtly by the publicized focus of specific laws passed, and also more insidiously by the numerous benefits and earmarks handed out within the footnotes of legislation.
There are numerous obstacles between the individual who wins the presidency and their ability to implement their political priorities. It is a wonder the office continues to garner as much attention as it does.
This is not to say we should dismiss American politics as a whole. Rather, that there is no pressure to concern ourselves with whomever happens to find themselves in the ‘seat of power'; they will be far from the most influential force in American politics.
Theodore Yan is a fourth-year student at New College studying political science.