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How Was 91 Percent of Congress Re-Elected Despite a 10 Percent Approval Rating?

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As is typically the case, the race for the presidency dominated the news headlines throughout the election cycle. But in our system of government, the presidency is not where the real power lies -- the real power lies with Congress. Congress is considered the first branch of our government because it writes the laws, levies taxes, authorizes the borrowing of money, declares war, and regulates commerce. The House of Representatives has the power to impeach the president. It is Congress that has the biggest impact on the lives of Americans, and as such it is the Congressional elections that we should be most concerned about.

Surveys have found that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with Congress. As recently as three months ago, the Gallup organization found that 90 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Congress was handling its job. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that just 8 percent think Congress is doing a good job. A New York Times/CBS News Poll survey published in February 2010 found that 80 percent of Americans believe members of Congress were more interested in serving special interests than the people they represent.

Under these circumstances, you would expect that 90+ percent of the Members of Congress would have lost their jobs in the recent election. But instead, 91 percent of those who ran for re-election won! If ever there was an indication that democracy in American is broken, this is it.

As it turns out, Congressional re-election rates this high are quite normal. Only rarely are less than 90 percent of the members of the House of Representatives re-elected. And while the Senate is more competitive, it is rare for less than 80 percent of senators to be re-elected. Senator Tom Coburn described the situation well when he said, "In several election cycles in recent history, more incumbents died in office than lost reelection bids." Members of Congress enjoy some of the best job security in America -- and the least amount of accountability.

How can this happen?

The typical explanation for this phenomenon is that incumbents have an advantage because they are able to raise more money and mount a stronger campaign, and have better name recognition and a good reputation from bringing home the bacon during their term in office. But is this really enough to overcome an approval rating as low as 10 percent? There must be something else going on.

Consider the following: According to The New American Democracy, "barely a third of the citizenry can recall the name of their [U.S. House of Representatives] representative, and even fewer can remember anything he or she has done for the district. Only about one in ten people can remember how their representative voted on a particular bill." According to the American Thinker, only 27 percent of citizens can name both of their U.S. senators.

In our democracy, it is primary elections that are the most important, since this is where voters have the biggest choice of candidates. Yet, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, only 15.9 percent of all eligible citizens participated in the 2012 statewide primary elections, in which candidates for Congress are nominated. It seems reasonable to assume that since most citizens know so little about their representatives in office, they are likely to know even less -- or nothing at all -- about the candidates competing in the primary. If this is the case, they are likely to ask themselves, "Why bother?"

The few people who do vote in the primaries tend to be members of special interest groups that the incumbents have worked hard to turn into supporters. These voters reward incumbents for policy favors they've received by voting for them in the primary election. For others who vote, the incumbent has credibility from having previously won office, and has on-the-job experience, while challengers are likely to be totally unknown. People are highly unlikely to vote for candidates who they know nothing about. This allows most incumbents to breeze through primary elections.

The general election presents voters with drastically simplified choices, as most are given the option of only a Democrat and a Republican (and perhaps a few unknowns representing obscure parties). Surveys have found that two-thirds of voters openly identify with either the Democratic or Republican parties and vote for candidates of that party the vast majority of the time. Of the remaining voters -- "independents" -- about two-thirds of them also favor one party over the other, and vote for candidates of that party the vast majority of the time.

In cases where incumbents are members of voters' preferred party, voters may not be fans of the incumbent, but they see voting for the incumbent as a lesser evil than voting for someone representing the opposing party -- which they likely see as the source of the problems to begin with. The effect of this is that in districts where a clear majority of voters are supporters of one party over the other -- which is the case in most districts -- incumbents of that party have extremely good job security. Districts that are closely divided are where most turnover occurs.

It seems, then, that Congressional job security is due to partisanship and voter ignorance.

As I have written elsewhere, political parties are marketing organizations -- brand names, teams complete with colors and mascots that serve the needs of ambitious politicians and the special interests that fund them. They promote ideologies that are carefully framed to justify their actions, inflame voters by vilifying their opposition, and influence (manipulate) people to support them.

There is nothing about political parties that work for citizens, other than as a heuristic that simplifies a complex political world and makes voting decisions easier. Anyone can run as a Democrat or Republican, which means a party label means next to nothing. When voters rely on party labels they are in effect overlooking the candidates and freeing them of all accountability.

Political parties exist only because of the enormous complexity of the government and the vast distance between citizens and the government, which makes it impossible for citizens to understand it to any sufficient level of depth. Parties simplify the political world into red and blue so citizens can feel comfortable with voting choices and participate in elections.

Partisanship is therefore merely a symptom of the public's inability to understand an enormously complex, vastly distant government -- voter ignorance.

It is important to put this into the proper perspective. Citizens are expected to elect candidates at the national, state, and local level who are running for a wide variety of offices in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Once elected, each office holder will work on a wide variety of issues. In order to make informed voting decisions, voters need to understand the job responsibilities of each of these offices, as well as who the candidates are, what they represent, and what they have done in the past. This is an immense task -- an impossible task -- particularly for people who have busy lives full of more interesting and pressing things than following politics.

Many people watch, listen to, or read the news on a regular basis, and for this reason consider themselves well informed. But studies have found that even the best informed citizens know next to nothing about the actions of their individual elected officials. Since we vote for individuals in elections and they do the work of representing us, it is their actions that are important. General information about things such as partisan warfare, political scandals, and the failings of government doesn't help. We seem to have simply ignored this problem and assumed that the only thing that matters is citizens casting votes in elections, with good decisions not mattering at all.

There is no escaping the fact that, in order to have a good government, citizens must be able to make truly good voting decisions about the individual candidates in elections. Expecting otherwise is a fantasy.

(It is important to mention that much has been said about the influence of money on elections. Money is used to mount campaigns to influence the public. The public is highly subject to influence, but only because people are uninformed and disconnected from a vastly distant, enormously complex government.)

But since citizens are so distant and disconnected from the government, does this mean that democracy is a fantasy?

It is a little-known fact that the Framers of our Constitution had a great deal of fear of direct elections as they exist today. One of the reasons the Articles of Confederation were considered a failure is that the people were found to be making bad decisions in elections. It was widely believed by the Framers that America suffered from an excess of democracy. "The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy," said Elbridge Gerry of the Massachusetts delegation. "The people do not want [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots." Fellow delegate Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph said, "In tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy."

The Framers knew that indirect elections -- voters electing representatives who elected other representatives -- was the key to overcoming this problem. That is why we have an Electoral College, U.S. Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president, and why U.S. senators were to be elected by the state legislatures. Most governors were indirectly elected in the early republic as well. In the national government, only members of the House of Representatives were elected directly by the people, and they were given mere two-year terms.

Over time, the fears of the Framers were forgotten and a series of reforms gradually replaced indirect elections with direct elections. This was not because direct elections were found to create a better government, but because they were thought to be more "democratic." Today, we define democracy as a system of elections where citizens vote directly for candidates running for office, simply because that happens to be the way it's done now.

As it turns out, we are now extremely adept at doing things indirectly in every other area of our lives.

Our complex society is built entirely on the use of delegation, which is accomplishing things indirectly through others: We don't build the homes we live in ourselves -- we hire a contractor who buys materials from a variety of stores, which in turn get goods from suppliers. CEOs of large corporations don't try to hire all of their employees themselves -- they hire managers, who often hire other managers, who in turn hire employees. We don't grow our own food -- we get it from the grocery store, which gets it from distributors, which gets it from farmers. Nearly everything in our society is accomplished via a chain of people, with each person in the chain having a reasonable amount of responsibility.

Following this line of thinking, the Framers created a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy. But for some reason, we are now stuck on the idea of having only one layer of representatives. If we are willing to delegate government work to one level of representatives, why not more levels?

Additional levels would mean having much smaller election districts -- which I will call communities -- with each of these communities having a single representative. This would allow citizens to actually get to know candidates for that position, have two-way conversations with them, and make informed voting decisions. It would bring citizens closer to government and give them more control over by connecting them to it via a chain of connected representatives.

An example of how this might work is as follows: Citizens would elect a community representative, who would in turn elect the district's representative to the state legislature, who would in turn elect that district's Member of Congress, who would in turn elect the president. Groups participating in elections at each level would need to be kept small enough to allow those representatives to make good decisions when electing their representative at the next level. How this is actually arranged would vary from place to place based on population.

Democracy that works smoothly and efficiently and that truly serves the needs of the people is possible. But to get there we must allow ourselves to accept that our current way of doing things is fundamentally broken and open our minds to other possibilities.

We have thought through such a system of democracy, and we call it Local Electors, which is the name we've given to the community representatives. You can find out more about it at www.localelectors.org.

The most frightening thing about our current situation is that since citizens are so distant and disconnected from the government, they experience a diffusion of responsibility. Simply reading the news and voting every few years gives people a sense that they are doing their part, and that they don't need to do anything more. Everyone assumes that someone else will take responsibility, so no one does.

The results of the recent congressional elections should be a red light telling us that our government is not in the control of the people. This is a very dangerous situation. If people are unwilling to do something now, we will surely pay dearly for it in the not-too-distant future. We need to have a conversation about how to solve this problem. Please take responsibility yourself and send this article to others so that conversation can begin.