Washington’s balance of power will be thrown in broad relief in October, as a ritualized battle named impeachment kicks into top gear. There’s going to be a lot of questions around a lot of dinner tables: Why is Pelosi in charge of impeaching Trump? Why does the Court matter in this drama? Does the President have the power to quash the investigation?
Most people don’t understand the relationship between Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. Repeating the phrase “checks and balances” doesn’t do the job, since these terms only explain the relationships in abstract terms. If I tell you that Congress is in charge of the money to pay the army, and the White House is in charge of ordering the army, how clear have I made things?
Lots of people, including the head of the Executive Branch, don’t understand how this business works:
What’s needed is a plain, approachable mental model. This is why analogies are valuable. We understand the world through comparison, through placing one mental model atop of the other. Suppose you had to explain football to a friend who’d never seen a game. You could repeat Wikipedia, verbatim. Or, instead, you could craft an analogy using pop-culture archetypes.
In 2013, a reviewer named Tim Rogers did just this. He treated the NFL as if it was a videogame, in an article titled “Football: The Kotaku Review.”
I’m here to tell you that Football is, beneath its blaring American pop-culture facade, a turn-based / real-time action collectible trading card game of fine, minute mathematical depth, with just the right pinch of procedural randomness, and character / plot development unparalleled in any other role-playing game released yet in the history of games.
Rogers compared football to a game of “Dueling Wizards (Generals) (Kings) (Emperors),” breaking down the role of each member of the team, like so:
The QB has to think quickly: ahead of him the center, two guards, and two tackles … Whose “tanks” are tougher than whose? That’s a question that a game of Football asks dozens of times in its course, and the answer is never always the same.
What Rogers did for football should be done for every important institution in American life. Including politics.
Therefore, I suggest the Marvel Universe is the best metaphor for comprehending how political offices work in America.
According to Jennifer Lawless’ book “Becoming a Candidate,” there are approximately 19,286 elected offices at and above the State level. For the Marvel Universe, estimates range from 18860 to 26860, according to one Quora thread. The parallels are striking.
Let’s start from the ground floor. Right now, America has fifty state governments. You can think of these statehouses as being the real-world equivalent to the The Uncanny X-Men and the rest of the associated X-teams. You haven’t heard of most of these elected officials … just as you wouldn’t recognize the names of most of the X-characters in the Marvel Universe. Of course, some characters are incredibly famous: Wolvie, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler. Similarly, politically aware people know that Gavin Newsom is Governor of California, Andrew Cuomo runs New York, and a guy named Abbott is in the big chair for Texas. Occasionally one of the Governors will run for President, and be successful, just as one of X-folk will have a solo title, and break out as a major character.
Speaking of major characters:
In the American political system, The Office of the President is Captain America. The President has a military rank—Commander-in-Chief—but his or her chief power is persuasion and leadership.
Cap isn’t superhuman: his agility, strength, endurance, and speed are beyond Olympian, but he’s not Thor. His major abilities are his ability to command, his moral leadership, and his experience. Cap has an outsize influence in Marvel compared to his actual abilities. He works with people who can flatten the world. Here’s a list of what Steve can do: throw a shield, give important speeches, make moral choices, and serves as a model to everyone else.
The Presidents of the United States have an exaggerated importance that is far, far beyond their actual might. That’s the great secret of the Chief Executive: the President doesn’t have as much power as we believe he does. It’s understandable why we make this mistake. After all, the President is on TV all of the time. The President commands the military. The President has more power than any other single individual in government. But as an office, the Presidency is essentially a middle manager role.
We all love Cap because we associate Cap with the past, with remembered glories. The Presidency is protected by a clinging aura of reverence that goes back to Washington.
Indeed, Cap’s powers of inspiration are extremely potent. Cap has a close (occasionally strained) friendship with Tony Stark, who embodies the military-industrial complex. Stark, who secretly loathes himself, is in awe of Cap. He admires him and trusts him, although he won’t always admit it. This also describes Cap’s relationship with Spider-Man, who is the best analogue to the American media. Spidey, who is both admired and loathed by the public, is awed by Cap every time he gets near him. This is the role that the press corps plays with the President, Trump excluded. Cap has an odd relationship with Nick Fury, the intelligence community, but that’s a different essay.
Cap is generally regarded as the best hand-to-hand brawler in the Marvel Universe; the President is usually the best political fighter in Washington. Like Cap, The President makes appearances in everyone’s story. The President, in some strange, abstract way, is America—much like Cap. Which explains why people vest so much emotional energy on what the President does on his day off.
The President is supposed to be an embodiment of the Republic. Despite the fact that the President and the Chief Justice and the Speaker are, roughly speaking, coequal heads of government, priority will always go to the President, just like everyone defers to Cap. This is why Presidential bad behavior seems especially offensive. When Captain America said “Hail Hydra” in 2017, it was national news. When the current President, who has a history of bigoted statements, called the Charlottesville marchers “very fine people,” it made headlines.
In fact, The President is the most powerful person in the world only because s/he is Chief Executive of America, the most powerful country. But inside their own countries, the President of Russia or the British Prime Minister are more powerful than the American President. Superman is more powerful in DC than Cap is in Marvel. Much as Cap can’t shoot laser beams, design a suit of armor, or stick to walls, the President’s real powers are limited.
The President can’t pass laws, can’t stop a determined Congress except with a veto that can be overturned, can only name so many offices and judges without Congressional approval. The President can’t remove Congress; Congress can remove the President. Cap is unofficially a leader among Marvel heroes; the President is unofficially leader of the “Free World.” Cap can lead heroes into battle, but he needs to borrow an Avengers jet to go anywhere. The President can send troops to war, but Congress has to supply the cash.
Cap exists to make the right choices and to inspire others. Most of Cap’s power is symbolic power, soft power. “Presidential Power is merely the power to persuade,” wrote the scholar Richard Neustadt.
The Supreme Court is Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. There are lots of magicians in the Marvel Universe, but the Sorcerer Supreme regulates the Ground Rules. He wears robes, speaks in obscure languages, has a lot of formulas and guidelines and relics we don’t understand. We usually don’t see him, but if Strange shows up in a story, it’s serious business.
In fact, lots of people don’t know who Doctor Strange is, and that’s the way he prefers it. Sorcerer Supreme is an unusual calling; you have to be a certain kind of person with a certain kind of background and a certain set of skills. You get picked from on high to become sorcerer. Likewise with the Supreme Court. At any given moment, there are a lot of candidates for the Supreme Court, just as there are a lot of potential Sorcerer Supremes in the Marvel Universe: Baron Mordo, Doctor Doom, the Scarlet Witch, Brother Voodoo, and so on.
You cannot appeal a ruling from the Court. Likewise, if Dr. Strange talks about a rule of magic, you’d better believe him. At the end of the day, Strange’s job is to declare what the rules are over an arcane and complicated realm. The Supreme Court’s job is judicial review. When there’s trouble on the ethereal plane, Dr. Strange inevitably shows up to explain to non-specialists what the problem is. As the Supreme Court’s website explains to us, “As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution.”
And then, Congress. The Constitution discusses the most important branch in Article 1, Section 1:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
All is the key word there.
Taken together, the United States Congress is The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is huge. So is Congress, with over 535 members. The Hulk has a split personality, and is usually fighting with himself. The Congress is eternally divided into two houses, with two parties dueling for power and supremacy. In fact, most outsiders date the Congress by who’s running the show: which personality is in charge? The Congress always seems to be angry, or repressing incredible anger.
Hulk isn’t well-liked, and most people don’t understand him. Hulk usually defers to what Cap wants. But Hulk is literally the strongest there is, and the madder Hulk gets, the stronger he gets. Let me repeat that:
Hulk. Is. Strongest.
The Hulk is the strongest there is. Period. He’s a force of nature, especially when he wants to be.
That’s a universal law, the same way that Congress is always going to be bigger and mightier than the President or the Court. In a similar vein, here’s a few of the Congress’ estimated thirty-five powers:
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof. ...
To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States …
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution …
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes …. To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures …
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years …
Long story short, the power of government resides principally in the control of money and the control of law. Congress controls both. The President executes the law, the Court rules on the law, but that’s where their power ends. The Congress can more or less do whatever it likes, if it can agree on anything.
In practice, the Hulk stays in certain bounds. Much as Congress does. But in terms of upper boundaries, there is theoretically no limit to his strength, or the anger that drives that strength. We literally have no idea how strong Congress could be, because Congress does not play well on TV the way the President does. Nor does Congress have the dignity the Supreme Court does. But the Congress, in every way that counts, holds the power. Doctor Strange and Cap can only get away with stuff only if the Hulk lets them. Congress could eat the Court and President tomorrow if they wanted to. This may happen in the near future.
The Congress checks the President and the Court. But the major check on Congress is the Congress itself. A Congress in full agreement with itself is unstoppable. It can remove Presidents, remove Supreme Court justices, begin the amendment process to the Constitution, pack the Court, lessen the court, hobble the President in any kind of way it deigns. The House is reelected every two years, and the Senate is reelected in stages. In very real terms, the Congress has never been wholly repudiated.
According to current continuity, the Hulk may be biologically immortal.
It may seem unusual to compare the People’s House to a giant green man in purple pants, but such are the times we live in. In the era of impeachment, I encourage all virtuous citizens to pay attention to Capitol Hill, and advise the Administration to cooperate forthwith with all investigations. As the rumor goes, you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.