Elections are so consequential to our lives because we’ve made politics too consequential in our lives. If your favored candidate wins, hope remains — if not, it feels like the downfall of American democracy. All the powers you praised when in the hands of someone you trusted are now at the disposal of someone you despise.
It seems that a modern president spends most of his time undoing the last administration’s actions instead of innovating and forging a better way forward. Initial divisions stem from differences in opinion, but the intensity of this division is based entirely on what is at stake — and when it comes to the executive office of the United States, almost everything could be at stake.
In poker, everyone simultaneously betting all their chips on one hand inevitably leads to only one player with the entire pot of power. In the 2016 election, many who believed they had the best hand went all in and lost, resulting in an enormous outcry that someone had cheated. The problem isn’t cheating — the problem is the stakes. If that kind of power is going to be gambled every election season, players need to understand that the consequences of defeat often outweigh the potential benefits of victory; the stakes are just too high.
Through executive orders and agencies, the president controls many aspects of Americans’ everyday lives. With the stroke of a pen, he can affect millions of people all over the country. Increasing executive overreach permeates American politics.
For Utahns especially, one obvious abuse of presidential power is the Antiquities Act. Originally, Congress authorized the president to protect and safeguard historic archaeological sites using the smallest area possible. Now, presidents wield the Antiquities Act like a public lands poker chip to score points with constituents. President Barack Obama designated the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument knowing it could just as easily be reduced under the same executive authority by his successor. And President Donald Trump’s proclamation could easily be overturned by the next administration. On and on it goes.
Instead of a winner-take-all scenario — where the winners and losers are constantly at odds — we should honor the checks and balances on those powers created by our Constitution. Let’s replace the trend of high-risk electoral gambles with the low-risk investment planned by the Founding Fathers. Contrary to belief, Congress is not meant to act quickly. It was designed to uphold the will of the majority while preserving the voices of the minority. So, although political gridlock can be frustrating, this is not a flaw — it is one of the most valuable features of our system of checks and balances.
So, the next time the president takes an action you passionately disagree with, ask yourself: “If this action had been taken by anyone else besides Trump, would I react differently?” If you can honestly answer no, then the real problem isn’t with the person in office — the problem is the nature and excessive power of that office. If the executive branch held less power, then the election of someone we find less than stellar (or even incompetent) would not be nearly as consequential. If we reassert our system of checks and balances, the branches of government will meddle more with each other, and less with us. Then it won’t matter nearly as much who sits in the Oval Office.
Ian Nemelka was a 2017 summer intern for Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.