08/30/2011 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2011

The Misrepresented Majority

"The American people demand..." is the persistent cry of politicians running for Congress, followed by a policy position which can vary from banning abortion on the right to preventing changes to Social Security or Medicare on the left. Every candidate insists that he or she "represents the people."

Yet what does "represent the people" mean? Presumably, it means at least that the member of Congress considers and often (but not necessarily always, as judgment is what we elect people for) reflects, in views and votes, what the majority in the district need. Yet, if members of Congress were doing well at representing the people, how do we explain these August 2011 data:

  • In a Gallup poll, 84 percent "disapprove" of the job Congress is doing.
  • In a Washington Post/ABC poll, 63 percent of adults said they were inclined to "look around for someone else" to vote for in the 2012 Congressional elections.
  • In a CNN/ORC poll, 49 percent of registered voters said that even their own representative does not deserve re-election.

The claim of members of Congress that "we represent the people" fares no better when we look at some specific policy issues:

  • 62 percent of those polled in a Time poll in June 2011 said that the federal government should be "allowed to ban" the sale of semiautomatic weapons to private individuals, despite the refusal of either political party to support this.
  • 63 percent of respondents to an August 2011 CNN/ORC poll said that an "increase in taxes on business and higher-income Americans" should be part of reducing the deficit, even though neither party included this in the plan recently approved by Congress.
  • 71 percent of those polled by ABC News and the Washington Post in June 2010 said that "the federal government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases ... in an effort to reduce global warming," although no bill from either party exists in Congress to do so.

Is it possible that our process for electing members of Congress no longer produces people who understand and adequately represent majority views? If so, how did we get to that point?

One part of the answer may lie in how congressional districts are created. In his book "The Disappearing Center," Alan Abramowitz writes that "[b]y the 108th Congress (2004-2005), 49 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans were in 'safe' districts." That is, due to careful gerrymandering of district lines, aided by the dominant party in the state legislature, they can expect reelection because, in essence, they have chosen the voters rather than the other way around. In most of these districts, the member of Congress can expect about 60 percent or more of the vote. As a result, such representatives can take strong stands and feel little need to compromise (that is, understand and incorporate different ideas). They can safely ignore a lot of those they are constitutionally pledged to represent.

In fact, those they ignore might, on many issues, actually be the majority. Who might this "misrepresented majority" be? One group is the roughly 40 percent of voters in these districts who did not cast their ballot for the winner. When that winner refuses to seek compromise positions that incorporate their views, a big chunk of the electorate feels -- and is --misrepresented. A second group may be all the district's citizens below voting age. These young people are the future, and their long-term needs often differ from the short-term ones that drive most voting in Congress. A third group may be those who were eligible to vote but did not. We can argue that they gave up that right of representation when they failed to vote, but that intellectual argument does not answer the practical question of how to represent their views to build trust in our republican style of government. Taken together, these three groups -- those that did not vote for the winner, those under voting age, and those that did not vote at all (due to age, infirmity or apathy) -- could well comprise more than half the citizens in most districts. When candidates for office feel that they can safely ignore this group, the group truly is the "misrepresented majority."

How did we get here, other than through gerrymandering? First, candidates in safe districts play to the vocal extreme. Second, almost all candidates cater to the moneyed interests that fund campaign coffers. Third, winners of congressional campaigns "listen" to voters through town hall sessions, personal meetings, letters/emails and polls, yet it is the organized (and often financially well-off) few who use these vehicles, not necessarily the unorganized (and less well-off) many. Since these three groups (which often overlap in membership, as well) may well constitute a minority of citizens in the district, it is easy to see how members of Congress, in catering to them, misrepresent the majority.

There is a difference between campaigning and governing. The former requires assembling an electoral majority. The latter means representing citizens. Too many in Congress falsely equate the former with the latter. Until they find a way to identify and truly represent all of their constituents, we will continue to have angry citizens and dysfunctional government.