UPDATED::Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It? (Part 1)

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.

·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·     ·

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.

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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11 Responses to UPDATED::Dysfunctional Federal Government – Or Is It? (Part 1)

  1. libertyandbagels says:

    Gerrymandering, like filibustering, is just another power both parties have abused and exploited for political advantage. I sort of agree with a few conclusions based on my personal and anecdotal evidence. During this recent election, I received fliers with mostly negative content. The candidates on both sides mostly claimed to have the ability to kick the other side’s butt rather than reach across the aisle. One ad I liked in particular had a greyed out picture of Harry Reid looking grumpy with a message along the lines of “Mr. Candidate puts fear into the heart of Democrats!” After seeing one Democratic debate and one Republican debate, I decided not to vote. While I’m not moderate, I’m somewhat centrist in that I have some views that are more conservative, some more liberal. So I think the quoted passage gets one thing right at least: partisanism disenfranchises voters.

    As far as the effects of gerrymandering, I’m not sure I buy it. Nixon said the main plan is to run to the right during the primary, move toward the center for the general election. It’s always been that way, even before google maps. What I think the change has been is the way the media covers politics. It’s OK for political ads to be negative. It’s common to see a hack on MSNBC or a GOP operative on Fox News parroting party lines and demonizing large swaths of Americans. This has caused division among Americans. It has turned compromise into a failure. You can’t be seen to compromise with the people who are destroying the country.


    • Brings to mind a couple sayings I’ve heard over the years, not necessarily always in the political arena:
      “If I agreed with you, then we’d both be wrong.”
      “If I’m right and you’re wrong, why should I compromise with you? The result would be half wrong.”
      – Jeff


  2. Great, my home state of MA gets the bronze on the “closest to dystopia” scale.


  3. bullright says:

    Good post. A lot of info there for thought. All the basic facts are right though I might differ somewhat as to what it means, good or bad. Its nice insight into the process. Maybe they say it elsewhere, but it also is a prima facie case against 3rd parties. The lesson people should take is how important the primaries are. No big surprises. The other is many Lib progressives just learn to work the system a little better. Though lately it’s even been tough for them. You have to know the system to use it to your advantage. But it seems only Republicans take the flack for not compromising. Only a few states are in the single digits, wow.


  4. BradsDrift says:

    The Pew Research Center put out a study on June 4, 2012 entitled, “Trends in American Values: 1987-2012 – Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years”. As I read it, it suggests that the American public basically have the same core values as 25 years ago, however, the political parties have shifted ideologically further apart – especially on certain topics…the environment displays the widest gap. (you can find the study at http://www.people-press.org/2012/06/04/section-1-understanding-the-partisan-divide-over-american-values/). This seems to support the concept of the “Myth of a Polarized America” if the individuals that make up America are the driving force. If the parties are the driving force, then it appears as though America is becoming more polarized.

    I heard an interview following this study on Colorado Public Radio and the interviewee (not sure who he was exactly – I was in the car and trying to avoid getting in accidents!) suggested that one of the reasons for the widening gap between the parties may have to do with marketing. It is much easier to define a candidacy in short snippets, like commercials, accentuating the differences between you and your opponent rather than to list the commonalities. Hence one of the reasons for “negative” add campaigns.

    In my own opinion, I wish that our elected officials could go to Washington DC and work with any and everybody to implement their ideas. I also understand that given the two party system we have, it is difficult to get legislation – especially groundbreaking legislation – through the process without the support of a party. I’m not sure how or if that needs to be fixed.

    How does this apply to gerrymandering? As I understand it, gerrymandering has historically been utilized by incumbent politicians to keep office beginning with Massachusetts then-governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Proponents cite the use of gerrymandering to give equal voice to minority groups by including them in one district rather than spreading them out over several districts. Opponents cite the obvious – incumbents or political parties using the system to remain in power. In the paper, “The Gerrymanderers Are Coming! Legislative Redistricting Won’t Affect Competition or Polarization Much, No Matter Who Does It” by Seth E. Masketa, Jonathan Winburna and Gerald C. Wrighta, the authors suggest that gerrymandering actually increases competition because politicians lump “safe” districts into districts they have had trouble winning before.

    I don’t know if a “safe” district or a less competitive district means that an extreme candidate will be selected. The Pew study seems to say that the individuals that make up the district are not as extreme as the Party platform may be. This suggests to me that if a Party supported a more centered (?) candidate – the individuals within the Party may connect better with the candidate than the extreme candidate anyway.

    Fun topic!



  5. Piper A Sickmiller says:

    Just want a true vote! I would love to see no party needed vote. So you can vote for who ever you want in primary and general. Because I want a good canidate and person who wants the government I do. Not a particular party, but they tie ours hands! JUST VOTE and count those votes the One with
    Most Wins!


    • Hi Piper. I like your enthusiasm, and how you get right to the point.

      I can totally understand your wish to simplify it all. The part that’s really tough is where you say “I want a good candidate and person who wants the government I do.” Problem is, there’s so many different voters with different views, it’s rare to find a candidate that matches you to a T.

      In other words, there really isn’t a unified “We The People”. There’s a zillion different opinions about what good government is. By the way, what’s your definition of “good government?” I’m interested in hearing your view.

      – Jeff


  6. If you liked Dysfunctional Federal Government — Or Is It? (Part 1), you might like Part 2.
    – Jeff


  7. Reblogged this on Cynthia Triplett and commented:
    Interesting article. I took the PQ Test and was surprised by the outcome:
    Here’s your PQ: 20.7

    Politicians with similar PQs are:

    Newt Gingrich (R-Ga., 1979-94) PQ=11.4
    Richard Nixon (R-Calif., 1947-52) PQ=12.5
    Lindsay Graham (R-S.C., 1995-2009) PQ=14.9
    John McCain (R-Az., 1983-2006, 2009) PQ=15.8
    Joe Scarborough (R-Fla., 1995-2000) PQ=16.4
    Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y., 1971-86) PQ=20.4
    Charlie Stenholm (D-Tex, 1979-2004) PQ=28.5


  8. Cynthia, can you elaborate on why your score of 20.7 surprised you?
    – Jeff


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