Every four years, we Americans gear up for the massively expensive, unapologetically gaudy spectacle that we like to call a presidential election.
Candidates spend a year and a half talking themselves up and painting glowing pictures of what the country would look like if they were at the helm. Meanwhile, we Americans spend a year and a half listening to them and arguing about their stances, fully willing to forget — at least for a little while — the fact that previous presidents have, more often than not, failed to deliver on their campaign promises.
Of course, it would be unfair to put all the blame on the POTUS for these unfulfilled promises, because despite what people like Ted Cruz might say about “Emperor Obama”, the leader of the free world is only as good as his Congress. And for a while now, that Congress has been historically incompetent, if their public approval rating is any measure.
Congress’s approval rating has been wallowing in the teens for more than five years now. The last time it climbed above 25 percent was December of 2009, and the last time more people approved of Congress than disapproved was more than 12 years ago, in Jan. 2004 (the month after Saddam Hussein was captured).
Congress’s approval rating jumped as high as 84 percent in late 2001 amidst the patriotic outpouring that followed September 11, but it immediately started dropping again in the months that followed. As feelings of wartime patriotism wore off and it became increasingly clear that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, Congress’s approval rating quickly regressed to its mean. By Oct. 2005, it was back under 30 percent, and besides a few brief blips (like the first few months after Obama’s inauguration in 2009) it has stayed below that mark ever since.
If Congress were a company, its years of poor performance would all but guarantee a high turnover rate, with managers and executives firing people left and right in a frantic struggle to find personnel capable of getting the job done. But Congress isn’t a company, and the unfortunate reality is that its members don’t have to perform all that well to keep their jobs.
The 2014 midterms, our most recent elections, are a perfect example. Despite an approval rating of just 11 percent, Americans reelected more than 95 percent of the incumbents who ran for another term in Congress.
This is by no means a modern phenomenon. In the 20 races since 1976, the reelection rate for incumbents in the House of Representatives has only dropped below 90 percent twice (88% in 1992 and 85% in 2010). Reelection in the Senate isn’t quite as guaranteed as in the House, but reelection rates have still hovered around 90 percent since 1980.
All of this data raises an obvious question: why do we reelect members of Congress so often when we so overwhelmingly disapprove of the job they’re doing?
The main answer, unfortunately, is voter apathy. Voter turnout for Congressional elections is at its lowest levels since 1978, and most of the people voting are older people (who tend to vote for stability).
Less than a quarter of the 18-34 demographic — the people most likely to vote for change — voted in the last Congressional election. The last time more than a third of Americans in this age bracket voted in a Congressional election was more than 30 years ago, in 1982.
This widespread voter apathy makes reelection much easier for politicians who are able to build a politically-active support base, especially if they also have the backing of powerful SuperPACs. It’s also worth noting that 77 of the 390 incumbents who ran in 2014 ran completely unopposed (am I the only person who thinks that’s insane??).
But there’s another, slightly less obvious factor that contributes to the reelection phenomenon: feelings of local loyalty and exceptionalism.
Last September, with Congress’s approval rating at a paltry 14 percent, Gallup conducted a poll to see why so many people were down on Congress. The poll focused on three questions: 1) Are members of Congress, “out of touch with average Americans”?; 2) Do members of Congress, “focus on the needs of special interests” instead of the needs of their constituents?; and 3) Are they corrupt?
Nearly 70 percent of the people surveyed agreed that most members of Congress put special interests above the interests of the people, and more than 50 percent agreed that most of them are corrupt. But when asked these very same questions about their own elected officials, people suddenly became more defensive. Only 47 percent said that their own members of Congress focused on the needs of special interests, and only 32 percent said that their own members were corrupt.
The gap was even more pronounced on the question that, in my opinion, is most relevant in terms of deciding whether or not to reelect someone. When asked if most members of Congress were out of touch with average Americans, a whopping 79 percent of the survey participants said yes. However, only 48 percent of them were willing to admit that their own members of Congress were out of touch.
It’s hard not to get caught up in presidential fever, especially with all of the colorful characters vying for power right now. But if we want to bring about real change in the American government, we have to 1) give Congressional elections as much attention as we give presidential races (if not more) and 2) get rid of this crazy notion that our own members of Congress are somehow more honorable and competent than all the rest.
88 percent of the seats in Congress are up for grabs this November. We have to show our members of Congress that their words and actions matter, and that we can and will replace them if they fail to represent the interests of the people in Washington. Only then will Congress start getting its act together.
BONUS: Gerrymandering — the practice of redrawing districts to favor a specific party — also plays a big role in terms of keeping incumbents in power.
This Washington Post article does a great job of explaining gerrymandering, and also includes some really cool maps that imagine what districts would look like if they were redrawn to optimize for compactness.