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The Cost of Winner-Take-All Presidential Politics

The third and final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be held in Las Vegas tomorrow night. As someone with a Ph.D. in American government, I feel like I should be invested. Instead, I'm just hoping for the whole wretched contest to be over, so that Trump can sleaze on to his next act of narcissistic malice, Clinton can show us how she's going to operate once she's claimed her lifelong ambition, and we can see how things look in the cold light of morning.

For the past six months, when reporters have called to ask about Trump's views on education, I've generally offered the same assessment: "It doesn't really matter what he says or what the campaign announces, because I think it's all performance art. I don't think he really means any of it. If he happens to win, I think what'll matter is who he appoints to office and what they want to do." What I've found most disconcerting is that those appointments would matter so much because we've gotten to a point where Washington can do so much.

While Trump's campaign is descending to new depths of ignominy and lunacy, those eagerly anticipating the next Clinton administration would do well to remember that the world keeps spinning. Recall that on the eve of the first debate only a few weeks ago, it looked like Trump had the momentum in the presidential race and might win—meaning he could pursue his promises to "get rid of" gun-free zones around schools, outlaw the Common Core, and all the rest.

Now, one of the blessings of our system is that it's not supposed to affect our lives all that much if the "wrong" person gets elected president.

The president presides over one of the three branches of the federal government, and is circumscribed by parchment, the judicial and legislative branches, and the realities of federalism. Heck, for most of my adult life, I've been left cold by the candidates for president—which means I've always been comforted by the understanding that, regardless whoever wins, they'd have only a very limited impact on our lives.

I think that's why, even more than the individual candidates in question, I've found this year's contest so troubling. The stakes seem to get higher and higher as presidents and their appointees tear away at the moorings meant to constrain them. I'm not na├»ve. I understand the desire of excited appointees and enthusiastic lawyers to do what they think right, even when it requires trampling precedent or distorting statutory language. During the Bush-Obama years, the U.S. Department of Education has creatively interpreted statute to give itself new authority to micromanage reading programs and school discipline, reward states for adopting the Common Core, and require colleges to strip legal protections away from students accused of sexual assault. All the while, those involved have not only been untroubled by their exertions—they regard them as evidence of their virtue.

But the costs of all this can be immense, especially when you realize these same small-bore educational disputes are playing out across the whole of the government. It means that presidential elections increasingly feel like winner-take-all affairs, where the losers no longer trust that laws will mean what they once did. It means that losers no longer believe that they'll be free to work things out in their communities or states—because a self-assured, 31-year-old deputy assistant secretary in Washington will be declaring what constitutes acceptable pre-K staffing ratios or insisting that a "decent regard for our constitutional rights" means that they have to let teachers carry guns in school. Winner-take-all stakes make things like compromise and civility feel like a sucker's bet, because one side is going to make the rules everywhere, for everybody—so you'd better dig in and try to make sure it's your rules that are getting imposed.

I realized a long, long time ago that I wasn't going to want to get out of bed on November 9th. But that's okay. I'm cool with that. Someone has to hold office in a democracy, and that's the way it goes. I'd be a lot more confident in our future and our ability to bind our wounds and overcome our differences, though, if I saw any reason to believe that the appointees and attorneys who will be sweeping into office with Clinton were any more troubled by this than those who swept in with Bush or Obama. Sadly, that seems an unlikely bet . . . although, I suppose, it never hurts to hope.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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