Election Day and the Riddle of Steel

A vote is nothing next to the hand that casts it.

We have already addressed on Overthinking It that the sitting president of the United States is a big fan of Conan the Barbarian. So, on the day of election for that office, let’s consider the great political lesson of that fine film, “The Riddle of Steel”:

Steel isn’t strong, boy. Flesh is stronger…That is strength, boy. That is power: the strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength of your body, the desire in your heart.

There is a conventional wisdom in the United States that Election Day precedes power. That a politician running for office is at his weakest, and that once he or she wins, there is a mandate, and the politician has the power to do things that matter.

Thinking of it in terms of the Riddle of Steel, though, and there is no day a politician is more powerful than on Election Day. On Election Day, the politician summons flesh across the continent to exert its energies on his or her behalf. More people are mobilized by the incipient President of United States on a given Election Day than were mobilized during the D-Day invasions of Normandy.

And, perhaps even more shockingly, more people are mobilized by the candidate who does not win on election day than were mobilized at the Battle of the Bulge, by many times over. So the losing candidate, despite seeming weak or ineffectual by conventional wisdom — a power that never had a chance to happen — is, by the wisdom of the Riddle of Steel, a tremendously powerful individual.

Conan the decider

Of course, it is not that simple. Perhaps we are more interested in policy outcomes than in winning elections (which would of course put us at the far end of an uncrossable gulf from any credible politician) — in that sense, elections feel trivial — a theater, a waste of time that should be spent working.

Except of course, who accomplishes policy goals? We are reminded constantly of “how the sausage is made” — of the negotiation, compromise and entrenched interests that end up conducting most of the governing that actually happens. We so rarely see the outcomes we actually want from the political process, but this is not because of the intentions of any one individual being at odds with our own, it is because

  • “We” are not a single unified perspective and actually people disagree a lot on what they want to see happen
  • A lot of what happens during governing is the product of institutions, long-term commitments, entrenched incentives and operational limits, rather than decisions by individuals

We all saw this in action during on the defining political moments of recent years, the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling debate is always theater, because it is never possible to change the federal government’s financial commitments or revenue streams quickly enough to stay under the debt ceiling once the issue is urgent enough to grab the public interest. Historically, the party of the president supports raising the debt ceiling, and the party against the president opposes it, and they play silly games until they eventually raise the debt ceiling (and of course last year they screwed up the games and hurt the country for no reason, but that’s another conversation).

This is not because “Washington is broken” — maybe Washington is broken, but this is not why, once the debt ceiling has made headlines, it always ends up getting raised. The proportion of spending by the federal government that can be changed on short notice is actually very small, relative to the size of the overall budget. We live with the myth that everything the government does it up for complete revision in the short term at any time, when in truth:

  • As we are perhaps soon to see with the 2013 fiscal cliff, even relatively minor shifts can have profound economic consequences and are usually not feasible.
  • In most cases, the commitments are already made, and even the president can’t back out of all obligations (the judicial branch provides a balance against that power across government, by, for example upholding lawsuits over things like municipal bonds)

Read some Congressional Budget Office writing on discretionary spending. Sixty percent of the budget in any given year is already committed and can’t be changed, even by the actual budget process. Half of the remaining 40 percent is for defense, which has a very complex budgetary process and volatile expenditures can’t be changed quickly (it’s not like you can return the stuff and get a refund, making small changes takes years). So you’re left with about 1/5 of the budget that you can even consider changing during a crisis.

Growth and contraction of discretionary spending as a share of GDP happens in single-digit percentage point swings over decades. For all people’s talk of being able to revolutionize taxing and spending and all that, there really isn’t all that much that anybody can do over a short to medium time frame — even a four-year presidential term.

Now, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here — it’s very possible you disagree with these specifics and it’s very possible you are right. But regardless of how you see it, these sorts of institutional functions are the steel; they aren’t the flesh. The appearance of power in the high-level budgetary process is nothing next to somebody who actually has the power to do, well, pretty much anything.

Institutional policy choices are not powerful. They loom. They threaten ominously. But they do not strike a blow or command anybody to be eaten by a snake.

We all like to reassure ourselves (or else we should like to reassure ourselves) that the president doesn’t really have all that much power over the economy. Certainly on a day-to-day basis, this is true — if we see the president as an executive running an organization with policy outcomes, the president isn’t very powerful at all, because all the institutions at his (and someday her) beck and call  are themselves already doing whatever it is they are going to do in the near future, regardless of what he says.

Who’s the boss?

Let’s briefly consider the president as an executive. The business world is full of “power rankings” (here’s one from Human Resources Executive Online)  and I have a huge problem with them — because they almost never measure actual power. They measure a person’s prestige, sure. A person’s salary and bonus, sure. Above all they measure the scope of resources nominally under this person’s supervision and the outcomes produced by those institutions when that person happens to be at the helm.

But implicit in all these rankings is the understanding shared by executives and conveniently glossed over in the praise offered them — that only in the most indirect or the most absurd fashion can any of these executives ever be said to have done any of these things themselves — and that being put in charge of the right team is going to be more important than almost anything else in how people perceive your power.

But, when we praise powerful executives, are we praising flesh, or are we praising steel?

It is not just possible, but common, for an executive to be named to a prestigious list of most powerful executive in the same year that the executive is fired — and people are about as likely to comment on this as they are to go back and review the January economic forecasts for the coming year (spoiler: they are no improvement over random chance). This, to me, seems to reveal a gap in the understanding of power — because how can a person be said to be powerful in business if he or she can’t even hold onto his or her own job?

This takes us back to the presidency and to Election Day. At the end of the day, the president’s actual job is as an executive, and executives have a lot less power than their mythology would like to admit. We call the President “The Most Powerful Man in the Free World” and other such epithets — but how powerful can you really be if you wake up every day in fear for your job, or if you spend a year out of every four groveling before strangers, eating pancakes for the amusement of others like some sort of carnival animal?

The answer of course is a profound irony — the times when politicians seem weakest — elections — are the times when they touch the most people, have the greatest influence, and can do the most to shape the years ahead — both the winners and the losers.

The finger with the power to control the universe

There is yet another, more powerful irony to the Riddle of Steel. In the famous speech from Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian, we see his side of the story — but it is easy to forget Conan’s. Conan overthrows Thulsa using the same power that Thulsa uses to enslave his followers — the power of the flesh, the will to do things himself, and his ability to inspire the followership of others. In the executive power rankings, Conan would be far, far, far down the list below Thulsa, but in power as understood by the Riddle of Steel, he’s right up there at the top.

This reminds me of the newly-Disney film Willow, which has another great riddle about the nature of power. The town wizard shows up every year looking for an apprentice, holding up his hand, and asking the hopefuls to choose the finger that controls the universe. He explains the riddle to Willow later:

When I held up my fingers what was your first impulse?

“Well, it was stupid.”

“Just tell me.”

“To pick my own finger.”

“Aha! That was the correct answer.

Election Day is also a very powerful day for individuals, because we get to set our vote for how we want the steel of government to take shape, and, more importantly, we can exert our will over others, through get out the vote canvassing and mobilization, nagging friends and relatives, participating in phone banks, and all sorts of other activities.

The “incipient president” and “the guy who loses” are both tremendously powerful, but it is debatable how much it is their own flesh commanding, through extension, other flesh, and how much the power instead belongs to the many people who choose to apply their own flesh to the day.

So, like Conan against Thulsa, we should not mistake the person with the power for the person with the army or the giant snake. Part of the Riddle of Steel is that its power passes from person to person rapidly — I mentioned before that during budget negotiations the institutional bore drills on without a driver, but it’s more precise to say that that the history of true power is a microhistory — of innumerable small acts of will, rather than a few big ones.

This is especially true in a republic like ours, where such temporary things as fortune, scandal, allegiance or even the weather hand power from person to person frequently — a few very large pieces of steel, but many many more powerful pieces of flesh.

And of course, republics like ours designate sacred days of great power, when everyone from the president down can marshall the true power of the flesh — when every political agent calls forth across the country for various maidens to jump into various snake pits, except the snakes are voting booths, the maidens are wearing more clothes, and you get a sticker afterwards.