The Politics of Polarity
Recently, a friend posted on Facebook, suggesting that in order to “fix” congress, we needed both term limits and an age limit. I suspect no one will be surprised to hear the post drew a number of comments, many agreeing, some dissenting.
Some offered the opinion that it really wasn’t age…witness the continued soundness of Bernie Sander’s mind, or the effectiveness of Nelson Mandela at advanced age. Another suggested we needed an IQ test and a mental competency exam. Still another veered off thread a little, observing the irony of many who voted for Trump did so out of a desire for change while sending the same representatives back to Washington. This individual concluded, “congress is the problem.” Is it?
Congress-Myth and Fact
I feel the pain behind both the post & the comments it evoked. We all have a list, don’t we? And…they’ll never be missed? But are we chasing butterflies while the elephants get away? Work with me, here.
The average length of service in the US Senate is 10.2 years, or a couple cat whiskers under two terms, according to a 2013 CNN article, By the Numbers: Longest Serving Members of Congress.
Congressional representatives serve on average about 10 years, or approximately five complete terms, according to the Congressional Research Office. So in both cases, the mean length of service (at least by itself) is probably not the problem.
What about age? In 2013, according to Slate, the average age of a US Congressional representative was 57 while the average age of a US Senator was 63. That’s certainly older than the median age of the US population at 37.2, bit, it feels like quite a reach to me, to attribute our “problems” with congress to either age or tenure or even a combination of both.
But if it's not Congress, then what?
So why does congressional approval still hover around an anemic 16% approval rating in both August and September? Maybe there's another problem. Maybe it's us. Over time, reelection rates have been remarkably stable. Since 1964, they’ve never fallen below 85% in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, over the same period, it’s never fallen below 70%, other than the period (1976-80), during which the rates were 64%, 60%, and 55%. How do we account for this seeming disparity between our actions & our opinion of Congress? Like life itself, It’s complicated. Fortunately for all of us, we don’t need to deconstruct every nuance of our political reality to arrive at thoughtful choices.
The Elephant in the Room...
Starting with the obvious, who elects our congressional representatives, or for that matter, the president? The answer in both cases, is that we do. That, as it turns out, is significant. But it's not the whole story.
In 1988, a Political Action Committee (PAC) was founded by Floyd Brown under the innocuous name, “Citizens United.” The PAC was founded with substantial funding from the Koch Brothers, owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the United States with assets in excess of $100 billion. This PAC made every attentive voters’ radar in 2009 in a suit of the Federal Election Commission that led to a decision now known as Citizens United.
The decision struck down certain key restrictions on how corporations could spend money during political campaigns and elections, reversing, a century-old precedent supporting government regulation of corporate spending during elections was overturned. The expenditures for the 2010 election aren’t all that impressive, until you compare them to the spending in the previous mid-term election (2006). As the graph shows, the Citizens United ruling opened the sluice gates to corporate funding of candidates, with the predictable result that corporate spending in elections skyrocketed. (Chart excerpted from
As the graph at the right shows, the Citizens United ruling opened the sluice gates to corporate funding of candidates, with the predictable result that corporate spending in elections skyrocketed. (Chart excerpted from reclaimdemocracy.org.) In the short run, thoughtful observers will guess (correctly) that the best-funded candidates were able to drown out the competition by the sheer weight of ad dollars. But that’s good for one, perhaps two election cycles, before the competition catches on and followed suit.
But it’s the long-term impact that’s proven most important. Skyrocketing expenditures in elections have fundamentally altered campaigns. For representatives in particular, fundraising has become more important than legislating, effectively taking their eye off what we sent them there to do in the first place…legislate.
And while the jury is still out on this, it is also likely to have the effect of tipping the scales in favor of big business, as the most lucrative targets for fund-raising and the most inclined to remain engaged in policymaking as it effects business. Is it any wonder your congressman isn’t listening to YOU, the little guy? He (or she) is listening to the organizations who have an agenda and are willing to pay handsomely to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with to what’s best for you. In effect, the best off are also getting increasingly better deals. I doubt that’s what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.
Because the Citizens United decision was handed down prior to the 2010 off-year election cycle, it had the effect of redrawing the districts nationwide. Republicans gained 43 seats in the House of Representatives, the largest swing since 1938. It’s extremely difficult to look at district boundaries like this and make sense of them from any other perspective than to guess they’ve been drawn to render them “safe.” This may be good for one of the dominant political parties, but I can’t see how it serves the interests of the electorate as a whole. (I’m picking on Pennsylvania, at right, but you can pull up examples from virtually any state.) Some are gerrymandered for Democratic dominance, others for Republican. In neither case is this in the best interests of citizens.
Citizenship & Stewardship
Citizens. It is almost impossible to talk about one without touching the other, because the constructs of the US Constitution envisioned stewards of the public trust as answerable to citizens who elect them. But these “rights” are not free. They are paid for by every citizen who goes in harm’s way or everyone who stands up for your liberties. It is underwritten by every citizen who participates in government in any form. In these capacities, you have citizens acting as stewards of your interests.
Stewards. The overarching assumption implicit in our Constitution is that the United States government owes its legitimacy to those who elected it. This indirectly includes the military forces acting under their orders or appointed administrators responsible to officials we elect. In all cases, they have a duty to act in your behalf. While your Civics or American Government classes may not have expressed this directly, this is the relationship between the elected and the electorate.
Checking up on your Stewards. In post Citizens’ United America, the relationship between electorate and elected has been attenuated by representative’s dependence on corporate donors and PACs supporting them. The extent to which this is true varies as does to whom the representative owes his or her soul. Fortunately for voters, you can know that answer to that question before you vote.
- Politifact. Want to know if a controversial political statement made by someone is true? Try these sites. Try Politifact.com for analysis of many of the day’s murky pronouncements. Politifact is non-partisan, run by the Tampa Bay Times and is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. By way of example with regard to their balance, see their recent article on Mr. Trump's recent claim that George Papadopoulos was a low-level volunteer for the Trump campaign.
- Factcheck. Another site worth a look for truth is Factcheck.org. Like Politifact, Factcheck is non-profit, non-partisan organization, run by the Annenburg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Their stated aim is to reduce the level of deception in partisan politics. Factcheck.org currently has a thoughtfully written and researched article on President Trump’s nonsensical claims that Hillary Clinton gave the Russians controlling interest in 20% of US Uranium ore.
- Open Secrets. This organization is run by the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s forté is tracking money and its intersection between policy and elections. Like the sources previously mentioned, it is non-partisan and pulls back the curtains on where candidates get their money. Want to know who “owns” your congressional or senatorial representatives true allegiance? Check out open secrets. Chances are good they’ll know.
- Media Bias Fact Check. A fourth resource I commend to everyone’s attention is Media Bias Fact Check. These folks offer a comprehensive list of known news outlets together with their bias/leanings. Ever wonder if Donald Trump is right about fake news? Well, he is, according to Media Bias Fact Check. But it might surprise the Donald to find out who’s on the list…
The Duty of ALL Citizens...
It is the duty of citizens to vote intelligently. And while voting intelligently is not the only duty of citizens, if ignored, it renders all the other acts of citizenship potentially meaningless. This is so because the United States cannot be run for long by someone (or ones) who lack/s the intellectual preparation or the temperament for governance. The temperament, in other words, of a steward with a firm understanding of our traditions, tempered by a sensitivity to the winds of change.
In the near term, we must be wiser in our choice of leaders, federal, state and local than we have been. Protest votes and change for its own sake are the refuge of intellectual laziness tantamount to shooting dice with the future of our nation. You may disagree with me, (and that’s okay) but our current choice for president seems to me to be a profound case in point.
As citizens, we are tasked with choosing worthy stewards of our children’s future. To be successful in pivotal roles at any level of leadership, I propose the following minimum requirements.
- Is he or she ethically worthy of our trust?
- Does he/she have a vision for our future I share & is that vision grounded in reality?
- Does he/she uplift our national standing?
- Does he/she demonstrate humility, compassion and a measure of common sense?
- Does he/she have the temperament to deal with the stress of the office?
- Does he/she possess the intellectual capital to deal with the complexity of the 21st Century realities we face?
If the answer to any of the foregoing is no, we don’t have the best candidate. If you think about it, that rules out a lot of men and women currently in office. I have listed them in order of priority for a reason. I consider the first four to be non-negotiable. I think we all should. What do you think?