Last week, my father-in-law came to visit for a few hours. He and my mother-in-law live relatively close, and one or both of them come to visit their young grandchildren a couple of times a month. It is a highlight when “Pops!” or “Mimi!” come to the house. They play games, read books, eat lunch, and eventually head back for the 90-minute drive home to northeast Ohio. It’s a family tradition.
After his visit, around 3 p.m. my father-in-law got back in the car to head home. But he did not get home around 4:30, in time to do some work around the house before dinner. Instead, he sat, on the same quarter mile of I-80 for nine hours before eventually getting home.
Last weekend was the start of winter in Ohio and Pennsylvania and with winter comes a different, more sinister tradition: the regular shutting down of I-80 and other interstates for extended periods due to vehicle accidents.
It’s no one’s fault, exactly. After all, nobody intends to get into an accident. And the state police that came by every few hours to make sure my father-in-law and his fellow drivers were alive and had enough gas to keep their heaters on in subfreezing temperatures were certainly working hard. But it’s a curious thing. I-80 began construction in 1953 and was completed in 1970, which means for 49 years citizens have been subjected to annual, disastrous pileups every time the snow starts falling. In the worst instances, state troopers arrange to take the ill or elderly to hotels on buses. Hopefully they get there before some poor pregnant mom goes into labor. But otherwise, everyone just waits, and hopes, that this time, the trooper’s estimate of “just another two hours” proves to be true. It’s not the fault of the first responders. They are trying their best to do their jobs in difficult circumstances. But no one in authority ever has the sense to think, “Maybe we should do something different this year.”
Anyone who has ever experienced this sort of delay, or stayed up calling a relative who is stuck in it, knows what it feels like to hope for basic government competency and not get it. It is surprising then that we keep falling for the same extravagant claims every election cycle. Presidential candidates make promises to “Make America Great Again,” or “Drain the swamp,” or “make college education free,” or “provide health care for everyone,” or bring “Hope and Change.” But the government cannot even fulfill basic functions, such as keeping the roads clean of snow and ice, or helping get drivers off the road after an accident. Why do we think they can fulfill all of the ridiculous promises we hear every four years, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary?
We do in fact still leave plenty of children behind in our education system. We haven’t stopped terrorism. We are losing the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty has wasted trillions of dollars without actually reducing poverty at all. American manufacturing has not come back to Lordstown, Ohio, or Buffalo, NY. If you like your doctor, and your plan, you can’t actually keep them.
We’re like Charlie Brown and every four years we really, honestly believe that Lucy is going to let us kick the football. But just like my father-in-law couldn’t make it home for dinner, the promise of Elizabeth Warren to magically socialize healthcare for the “low price of $30 trillion” somehow without raising middle class taxes are obviously untrue. The promise of Joe Biden to bring back the glory days of Obama’s presidency, when we all liked each other, there was no partisanship, health care worked well, and Syria was a functioning country, are as true as Joe’s stories about his time under fire in war zones. Bernie Sanders’ angry diatribes against the rich are slightly less believable now that he is a multimillionaire. And of course, Donald Trump’s guarantee that “it was a perfect phone call” seems no more believable now than it was in June.
Maybe we should gain some perspective from all of this. In my view, I-80 is an apt metaphor for our entire governmental apparatus, from local and state governments to the leviathan in Washington. And Winter is Always Coming.
Dr. Caleb Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute. He teaches American Politics and Political Theory and specializes in American constitutional thought.