DISCLAIMER: As loyal readers know, my blog is focused on living with Rheumatoid Arthritis. From time to time, I wander off topic (cooking, travel, politics). Today is one of those days. This year’s Presidential election has been the ugliest and most vitriolic I can recall, and I’ve been feeling a bit helpless. The below outlines my thoughts on what we, the citizens, can do to change the political climate. Thank you, Carla, for your feedback. And as always, thank you all for reading.
“Every nation gets the government it deserves.” – Joseph de Maistre
Since I’m not running for office, I don’t have to follow the #1 rule of campaigning: don’t insult the electorate. Plus, I’m going to constructively criticize (not insult, I hope) all of us with three numbers. 15. 96. 37.
Let’s look at the first two as a pair. A December 2014 Gallup poll found that U.S. Congress has a 15% approval rating among the American people. There’s a little wiggle room in the exact percentages, according to Politifact, but in general, the numbers haven’t moved much in the last decade. And this means a whopping 85% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, whichever party is in control. In fact, head lice, cockroaches, root canals, traffic jams, and even Nickelback all boast higher approval ratings. The same poll did show that Congress is more popular than telemarketers, North Korea, ebola, and gonorrhea. So, I suppose there’s a feather in their collective caps.
Now, want to guess the second number? Almost 96% of incumbents are re-elected to Congress. Despite the fact that we’d rather listen to Nickelback while getting a root canal. This cycle, we’ve heard a ton on both sides about how voters are “fed up” with career politicians, how they want our leaders to fix the “rigged system”. A 15% approval rating certainly supports these sentiments. But the media coverage on voters’ motivations largely misses the other piece. We are not victims. We the people continually ask these very politicians – the ones we think are terrible at their jobs – to make our laws and spend our tax dollars. Year after year. Election after election. 96% of the time, in fact. Why?
Before we attempt a diagnosis, let’s dig into a third number. 37. This is the percentage of voters who turned out for the 2010 mid-term elections. As Pew Research points out, midterm voter turnout since 1948 represents a 15-20% decrease from Presidential election years. The fact that our high point is only 52-57% is cause for concern, but that’s an issue for another day. It seems that many millions of Americans wake up every four years to vote for our highest office, then simply tune out until the next Presidential election. Not the best way to change a rigged system.
So, back to the question of why. The numbers suggest that both voter apathy and polarization play a role.
Voter indifference is a fairly easy diagnosis. Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of Congress, but we keep re-electing the same people to serve. Minus the media spectacle inherent in a Presidential race, most Americans don’t even turn out to cast votes at all. But America isn’t a monarchy, and whether the President shares your party or not, Congress and state/local officeholders impact most of our lives more than the individual serving in our highest office. We simply aren’t paying attention most of the time, for most political races.
Yes, a slim majority of us vote when the Commander-In-Chief is on the ballot. But many of us don’t force politicians to earn that vote. We check a box based on our party preference. Increasing polarization is one reason we are not likely to see a Presidential landslide in either direction. It may also explain why third-party candidates have trouble gaining traction. Regardless of individual policy positions or qualifications, each of the two major party candidates is likely to receive 42ish% of the popular vote, just because of the “R” or “D” next to their name. And the undecided population dwindles with each cycle.
We’re further polarized by the hyper-partisan media bubble, which reinforces the idea that “our” side is good and “their” side is evil. We see pundits on TV talking past each other, and we do the same on our Facebook feeds, reiterating party talking points. Think about what happens after every Presidential election. The “winning” side heaps praise on the White House for the next 4 years, taking credit for all positives. The “losing” side blames every negative thing on the White House. These narratives are repeated by leaders in the Senate and House, and reinforced by the partisan media outlets we choose. We reward Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz for ideological purity. We slam Hillary Clinton and John McCain for “compromising their beliefs” to find solutions. Winners and losers. Party over progress. We’re in a climate where it’s politically dangerous to even meet with politicians from the other side. Where our politicians refuse to hold hearings on a President’s Supreme Court nominee. Where the other side is painted as dangerous to the very future of the country. In short, we’ve officially reached a stalemate. As evidenced by that dismal 15% approval rating, this environment is endlessly frustrating to voters. But, it’s also the behavior we continue to reward, as shown by the 96% incumbent re-election rate.
The theme of 2016 has been voter frustration with the rigged system, corrupt politicians, and greedy bankers. And once again, we pin our hopes on putting a savior in the White House who will fix it for us. But change doesn’t reside within the Presidency. It resides within us. We decide whether our politicians, both in our cities and in Washington D.C., keep their jobs. Imagine what would happen if voters harnessed our power and tried a different approach this year. Imagine an America where we stop re-electing party ideologues and obstructionists. Imagine an America where “work across the aisle” compromise and real progress are rewarded, not labeled as party traitorism. Imagine an America where voters pay more attention to real issues than to horse races. Imagine an America where voters step outside the partisan bubble and reject “us” versus “them” discussions. Imagine an America where we engage in respectful, nuanced dialogue about complex issues, and seek out media that does the same. Imagine an America where we stop shouting, and start listening to and learning from each other’s perspectives. Imagine an America where we vote.
These three numbers are disheartening. But they also remind us that we have power. We can speak out with one voice, and break the vicious cycles of apathy and partisanship. To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, let’s be the change we want to see in our politics.
Vote like it matters to our country. Because it does.
P.S. If you’re into these ideas, here are three of my favorite sites:
What are some of yours?