Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Voters are Not Hapless Victims

Americans hate Congress. Americans love to hate Congress.

Nearly three months into its term, the 111th Congress is enjoying approval ratings around 30% positive and 56% negative. This is almost exactly on par with the approval ratings for the 110th Congress at the same time two years ago. After May 2007, however, the ratings for the 110th Congress declined below that point and never recovered, dipping as low as 12+/79– last fall. If the current trend continues, the honeymoon period for the 11th Congress will end by summer.

The 109th Congress, by contrast, had positive ratings in the high 20- to low 30-percent range its entire term. Its negatives fluctuated from the low 50s to the low 70s. The 108th Congress had about the same. In fact, it’s been a long time since Americans have genuinely approved of Congress. It is essentially a failed institution in the minds of most Americans.

But we apparently think that with few exceptions, Congress is only bad when its members get together. I say this because we keep sending the same people back to Congress election after election. We hate Congress but generally approve of our own representative and senators.

The 2006 congressional elections produced a major shakeup. The Democrats picked up 7% of House seats and 6% of Senate seats. Even in that election, incumbents mostly kept their seats: 94% in the House and 79% in the Senate. Those that lost had been successfully tied to scandals in a very public manner (see article).

Last November’s elections returned 95% of House incumbents and 93% of Senate incumbents to Washington (see article).

There are many reasons for incumbent advantage. Americans have a flair for appearing to favor political outsiders. But the reality is that Americans give a lot of weight to experience. The more experienced candidate wins more than three-fourths of the time (even in races featuring no incumbent). Who has more experience at the job than the incumbent?

Gerrymandered districts also help return House incumbents to Washington over and over again. The incumbent in most districts merely needs to win her party’s primary to ensure re-election in November. Senators have it a little more difficult, because they have to appeal to voters across their state.

Incumbency brings name recognition, which has long been a major factor in political races. Every time the incumbent’s name makes the news, it is advertising. Some of it is good; some is bad. In general, however, it works to the incumbent’s advantage unless he has outraged voters with disgraceful behavior.

Donors also know that incumbents are most likely to win. Incumbency brings more opportunities for fundraising, usually including support from their party’s establishment. In nine out of ten presidential and congressional races the top campaign spender wins.

While incumbency has its distinct advantages, challengers can win even when an incumbent hasn’t been any more dishonorable than the average federal legislator. For example, underfunded newbie Jason Chaffetz convincingly beat four-term incumbent Chris Cannon in last year’s primary in Utah’s 3rd district, thanks to a lot of work at the grass roots level. Also, a challenger’s lack of a voting record can sometimes work to her advantage.

While all of these things are true, I’m afraid that they tend to paint the voters as victims of the political class and its fellow travelers. While voters can certainly fall prey to manipulation, I don’t buy the general argument that the masses are little more than innocent dupes or useful idiots in a political game that is beyond their control.

The people of this nation have more power and capacity than that. In fact, our political affairs are in their current state by choice. We choose to permit Gerrymandering. Heck, sometimes we require it. We choose to accept massive incumbency advantage. We consent to political funding schemes. It doesn’t have to be this way. We choose it, even if we do so by unwillingness to do anything about it.

Instead of discussing the symptoms, it would be better to get at the root of the matter. We should be asking why we as a society choose to organize our politics in this manner. Despite what we tell pollsters, we seem to actually be far more willing to live with what we’ve got than to take steps to effect real improvements.

This could mean that we (as a whole) are fairly satisfied with the current state of affairs, despite what we say to pollsters. Or it could mean that the elite class simply hasn’t pushed the populace to the point of rebellion but that the pot is simmering. Maybe the truth lies somewhere between these two points.

At any rate, I believe Americans have chosen and continue to choose our current political model, including its problems. The question is: why?


Jake said...

A few years back when Jon Stewart was interviewed by Bill Moyers, he discussed affluence regarding the war in Iraq. I think his rationale applies to any affluence regarding government policies. Here's the YouTube link.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Stewart is saying that when people have relative affluence they are at ease. They don't feel threatened by and large. They want to just live their lives. It's hard to get them to move from the status quo.

When I served a mission for my church, we found pretty much the same thing when it came to receptiveness to a religious message. Those that were at ease didn't want to be bothered. Those in more humble circumstances were more likely to lend an ear and maybe even get involved.

That's an interesting thesis. It may be one of the dynamics in voter turnout rates around the world.

Anonymous said...

I would not be surprised if affluence is a contributing factor, but I also believe that one of the reasons that we accept the status quo is because we are often told that voters are helpless victims of circumstance. We tend to believe what we are told because we rarely take the time and interest to find out whether what we have been told is actually true so we don't know when to stand up and make things different.

Charles D said...

I would agree that affluence can be a cause, but statistics seem to show that larger percentages of the affluent vote than other groups. The low ratings given to Congress by people of voting age is a reflection of the sense that it really doesn't matter who we vote for because none of them is going to do anything for me, or because they are all crooks.

The other problem I see is that we market political candidates the same way we market banks or soap or another other product. Those ads cost enormous sums of money and the only way to get that money is to ingratiate oneself with people who have money. Now and then an unusually gifted candidate can win a House seat while underfunded, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Our campaign system tries to turn us into consumers rather than citizens and far too many Americans have not resisted. Also in most parts of the nation, there really is no contest in the general election because one party dominates the district or state to such an extent that candidates of the other party don't have much of a chance. Some of that is gerrymandering and some of it is just that we have sorted ourselves into political ghettos where we live among people who share our values.

Scott Hinrichs said...

All true. Many do take the consumer view rather than the citizen view of civic involvement, even accepting the marketing at face value. We have discussed self sorting previously as a factor.

Perhaps much of this comes down to our perception of enfranchisement. The less affluent may tend to feel less enfranchised than the more affluent. People feel disenfranchised when they believe their vote doesn't matter.

Thanks, all, for your interesting and rational thoughts.