Here’s one of the hottest water-cooler topics kicking around this year:
“What the hell is wrong with those fools in Congress?”
Even President Obama has become fond of saying it.
It seems Congress can’t even agree on what’s for lunch, much less get something done for the country. Look at this graph from Gallup. It shows the nearly 40 years of polling on “Congressional Job Approval”, which has reached an all-time low of 10% twice this year:
Click here to read the short source article from Gallup.
I recently read the book That Used To Be Us (2011, written by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, published by FSG). Perhaps in a future article I will critique the overall book a bit. But regarding dysfunctional government, let’s dive straight into Chapter 12 entitled “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.”
Pages 246-248 discuss Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina’s 2004 book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. On page 248, Friedman & Mandelbaum quote from Fiorina’s book:
“…a recent CBS story titled ‘Polarization in America’ reported that 76 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of Independents would like to see elected officials compromise more rather than stick to their principles…”
The authors then discuss the make-up of the Democrat and Republican platforms and memberships, and how that make-up has changed since the end of WW2. In their view, as the baby boomers grew up, the congenial mixture of liberals and conservatives that existed within BOTH parties gradually separated along ideological lines and emigrated across the aisle in both directions, until today there are few (if any) liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats. They observe that the respective memberships of the two parties have been purified, and peer pressure now strongly discourages bipartisan cooperation.
In the authors’ view, one area greatly affected by this entrenching of the battle lines is the process of re-drawing the congressional district boundaries based on results of each 10-year census. The practice of creating twisting boundary lines to artificially group voters of the same party affiliation together into safely controlling majorities has been around for 2 centuries. Starting in the ’70s/’80s or so, the authors think this technique called ‘gerrymandering’ became a significant contributor to American government polarization. In an extended passage that begins on page 250, the authors explain their concern:
“With computerized databases and Google maps, gerrymandering has become much more sophisticated. So effectively can the state legislatures, which draw electoral boundaries, carve out districts so that one party or the other is virtually certain to win, that these days it is said that elected officials are the ones who choose their voters as much as it is the voters, exerting their democratic right, who choose their officials. The state of California provides a vivid example. The state has fifty-three congressional districts. In the four elections between 2004 and 2010 – a total of 212 electoral contests – only one district shifted from one party to the other.
What this means is that in ‘safe’ districts the crucial election is the primary, in which registered Democrats or Republicans select the party’s candidate. Once you win the primary in a district gerrymandered to your party’s advantage, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are virtually guaranteed to win the general election. Because the voters in primaries generally must be registered members of the party, and because the ones who vote in primaries tend to be the most ideologically committed members of the party, candidates nearer the extremes of the political spectrum tend to do better in primaries than those positioned closer to the center.
After winning the primary, the extreme candidate is then in a position to get the votes of more moderate voters in the general election – because in effect the only other choice is the extreme candidate from the other party. Moreover, once elected, the official knows that the only politician who can knock him or her out of office is not a candidate from the other party, whose chances have been reduced almost to zero by gerrymandering, but a more extreme candidate within his or her own party, who can pose a challenge in the next primary. The desire to avoid a primary challenge discourages moderation and compromise with the other party while the representative is in office.
In this way, moderate voters elect extreme candidates: The political system does not offer them moderate choices. It works so that, as former senator Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat who represented a relatively conservative state, Indiana, told us, ‘It’s the people in the middle – the moderates, the independents – who get turned off and drop out, which only accentuates the power of the two extremes.’ ”
I have presented this interesting passage to you verbatim…with no injection of my opinion. What do you think about it? Is it straight, or is it spun or cherry-picked in any way? Is there any other conclusion the authors could have reached, using the references and examples they cited? Are there other references and examples they could/should have cited?
I have some thoughts about their hypothesis that I haven’t researched yet. For now, please join me in chewing on it, and leave me a comment. I will post a Part 2 soon.
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UPDATE: I found an interesting web site containing a PQ test (Political Quotient). On a scale of roughly 0 to 100, the test measures your preference for limited government (lower scores) or expansive government (higher scores). FYI, my score was in the single digits.
From the website, here are the average PQ scores for voters in each state:
However, the main reason I’m updating this article is that I found the 40 questions to be an excellent illustration of the dysfunctional federal government discussed in this article. It’s also a unique opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of your congressional representatives. I recommend taking the PQ test.