Wildly exaggerated rhetoric is one manifestation of dysfunction in U.S. politics. Donald Trump clearly leads in this, but nonsensical and inflammatory claims bubble across the political spectrum.
Many are apocalyptic. If this candidate is elected or that law enacted, the United States will somehow end. Nonsense. Reflect instead on wisdom from economist Adam Smith.
In 1777, a friend told him that the surrender of British general John Burgoyne at Saratoga would “ruin” the United Kingdom. Smith responded, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” He meant that nations are far more resilient than alarmists assert. This remains true today. Nations survive setbacks that seem catastrophic to some. Often they actually thrive.
Burgoyne’s surrender motivated the French to join the colonists, tipping the balance toward independence. That hurt British pride and caused short-term economic dislocations. But Britain entered 150 years of its greatest economic and military power.
Despite nonsense to the contrary, the United States is a great nation and it will be, regardless of who wins upcoming elections. We may prefer candidates. I certainly do. But U.S. political, economic and civil institutions are broad-based and deeply rooted. For over two centuries, they have survived political and economic turbulence, and they will survive much more. Any single president may, on balance, do good or harm, but it is nearly impossible for one to ruin our nation.
Why does such rhetoric find willing ears? One reason is that people err in identifying historical causation. They assign too much weight to the effects of government on the economy. They believe a president has more power over the economy than any actually does. And they believe our country has greater control over events elsewhere in the globe than it actually does.
If one looks back at U.S. economic history, there are important trends: inexorable movement westward, development of canals and railroads, technological innovation in agriculture, and growth of steel and other industries.
Government played a role in these. But government policies pale in importance compared with demography, technology, economic culture and factors abroad. One now can argue that specific laws pushed development toward one path or another, but these were secondary factors. Many of the most important effects of government were unintended and unforeseeable when enacted.
The role of presidents was limited. Yes, our financial system might have developed differently if Andrew Jackson had not vetoed the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States. Westward expansion might have followed a different path if Jackson and Zachary Taylor had lost elections. The Panama Canal might have been delayed if an assassin had not boosted Teddy Roosevelt into the White House. If William Howard Taft had beaten Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the Federal Reserve might have been delayed, too.
However, in all things that we identify with a specific president, the details were far more complex. Congress always played a role. Key congressional leaders, now largely unremembered, played a larger role than presidents. Indeed, up to Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, rather than the president, was the keystone of governance. In the gaps between Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, no president changed much in the broad course of U.S. history.
Nearly everyone falls into a post-hoc fallacy of assuming that because something happened during an administration, that president caused it. This is seldom the case.
Herbert Hoover’s response to the developing Great Depression was hapless, but Wall Street’s crash months after his inauguration would have occurred anyway, and he had no control over the Fed’s mismanagement of the money supply. Both of these far outweighed what Hoover could have done. Yet he gets blamed.
The strongest employment growth in 70 years was during Jimmy Carter’s administration, but that was from baby boomers reaching working age, not from anything he initiated. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama presided over the highest unemployment in the same era, but in both cases, it was due to recessions started before they took office. One can laud or fault the wisdom of their initiatives, but in no case did these have nearly the effects on the economy that many think.
On foreign policy, enthocentricity dominates views on both left and right in our country. If the Brazilian military ousted president Joao Goulart in 1964 or insurrection broke out in Libya in 2011, it must have been because of something our country did. In both cases, events were well under way regardless of U.S. policy.
Dramatic economic growth of Japan and China, the creation of the European Union, and the collapse of communism all were due to domestic historical forces within the countries in question, not to something we did. Yet all these did have effects on our economy. U.S. foreign and economic policies had effects at the margins but were always secondary. And there were few instances when a single U.S. president had more than a contributing role in shaping long-term U.S. policy.
Yes, champions of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan argue that these presidents steered the helm during “tides in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood” did lead to historic change globally. And yes, a potential president in thrall to Vladimir Putin, who derides our longstanding defense relationships and who would reverse 80 years of trade policy, could do great harm.
But in the end, Smith will be proven right. It does take a great deal to ruin a nation. Whichever candidate wins, even with favorable majorities in both houses of Congress, our nation will survive. Whether it will also thrive through this period depends much more on our collective willingness to cooperate as citizens than on the outcome of any particular election.
St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.