Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Elections and Expansion of Power

"And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat?"
--Sir Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons)

Increasingly, presidential elections in America throw groups who supported the losing candidate into panic. The panic includes pointing fingers. The president elect is a marxist or fascist. People who voted for him are uninformed or just plain idiots. The election system is rigged or unfair.

An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it is bipartisan. For example, eight (and four) years ago, Republicans went into hysteria when Barack Obama was elected. Today, it is Democrats' turn as Donald Trump prepares to take the reigns. Complaints only arise when their side loses.

One way to explain this behavior is that it aligns with social identity theory and the psychology of losing. People tend to identify with groups--sometimes very strongly. They can develop such an psychologically vested interest in their group being superior that, when their group loses or is put down, they cope with cognitive dissonance by blaming others.

Another way to explain it is that there is true reason to be terrified. Today's US president holds far more discretionary power than our founding ancestors intended. That may be ok with you if the person in charge shares your values. But if a sitting president does not like you or the group you belong to, then the nation's chief executive is in a position to trample your rights with, borrowing from the current administration's stated approach to lawlessness, with the stroke of a pen or a phone call.

The anti-federalists foresaw this situation long ago. Marry discretionary rule with democratic election processes, and you were likely to see at some point just what we're living through today.

But the proper source of blame isn't the other guy. It is with us when we support discretionary expansion of presidential powers when it suits our interests. Because, at some point, that discretionary power quite likely will be wielded by someone we don't like and who doesn't like us.

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