The Curse of Incumbency (And Death of Democracy?)


With the 2016 presidential sweepstakes in full swing, it’s a good time to take a close look at how we elect our national and state leaders and how we, as voters, have performed our constitutional right and duty to decide who decides – not just the Big Decider but all the other deciders, the legislators who make the laws that govern our public life (and if Ted Cruz has his way, our private lives, too).  In theory, when voters don’t like what the government is doing they throw the rascals out – it’s Democracy 101.  But too many voters haven’t read the textbook.  Indeed, when it comes to politics, many Americans can’t read if voting is any indication.

In a 2014 exit poll, nearly three-fifths of the voters who cast ballots said they were not happy with the Republican leadership in Congress.  In the same midterm election, voters handed control of the Senate to the GOP – an irrational, paradoxical and self-defeating outcome on its face.  Congress’ abysmal approval ratings in October 2014 captured the frustration many voters felt.  Here’s the breakdown from five different surveys (

• Fox News: 13 percent approval
• CBS News: 14 percent approval
• CNN/ORC: 13 percent approval
• ABC News/Washington Post: 20 percent approval
• NBC News/Wall Street Journal: 12 percent approval

Averaging these results, a jaw-slackening 86 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job.

What’s going on?  How can it be that voters overwhelmingly disapprove of congressional lawmakers’ performance but rarely turn one among them out of office?

One answer is apathy, ever the  enemy of understanding. “Who cares?” “What can I do about it anyway?”  “My vote doesn’t count.”  Another answer is ignorance or what happens when apathy and sloth team up.  (The “sloth” in this case is not a calumny against sedentary three-toed animals in trees, but ten-toed ones who sit on couches eating pizza and watching re-runs of Charlie’s Angels.)

If you don’t already know the danger in conceding control to the clueless, there’s a good chance you won’t understand – which is exactly what’s wrong with a wide swath of the electorate and what the likes of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio are counting on.  It’s not apathy that explains the paradox of incumbent reelection in the face of congressional fecklessness and public disapproval but rather ignorance of a specific kind, namely civic ignorance.

Political literacy is the flywheel in a functioning republic.  Without a well-informed and fair-minded electorate, an “indirect democracy” based on the twin principles of representation and participation has no direction at all.  Without it, a demagogue like Donald Trump can take the country in any direction he chooses.  Without it, anything the addled brain of a blustering bouffant billionaire can conjure is possible.

Politically speaking, it’s meaningless for a developed country to boast universal literacy if a majority of its citizens do not understand the ABCs of The Government.  Politics isn’t a “game” for spoiled children and words aren’t plastic toys to be broken and discarded.

Take the word “filibuster” – the Senate rule that allows a single Senator to obstruct debate or one-third of the members present to prevent a vote on a bill.  It involves a key principle – majority rule.  It’s not just a funny word, it’s an extra-constitutional method adopted by the Senate – elected representatives of the people, after all – for the express purpose of defeating the majority.  In a body based on the principle of majority rule, that’s quite a stretch.  On the other hand, it’s designed to protect minority rights, which is also a fundamental principle of democratic politics.

Things like the use and abuse of the filibuster in the Senate are apparently not worth mentioning, much less debating.  Senator Marco Rubio missed 225 roll call votes since 2011 – almost 15% or one of the worst voting records in the U.S. Senate.  On those 225 occasions, it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was for or against a bill – or a filibuster.  It’s no wonder that a Senator who misses that many votes don’t want to debate an anachronistic Senate rule that would almost certainly result in calling attention to his poor voting record.

As everyone knows, Republicans have a solid majority in the House of Representatives, but it’s doubtful that most voters know why or that one political party has managed to lock the other one out – permanently. That’s due in no small part to “political mapping” – a euphemism for congressional redistricting which is controlled by state legislatures.

You can blame Republicans for “gerrymandering” and subverting the Constitution, but both parties do it and the Supreme Court lets them get away with it.  Like it or not, Republicans have done a much better job than Democrats of focusing on, and investing in, state legislative races.

People need to know such things to make rational decisions in the polling booth.  Pointing to Rubio’s poor voting record is fair. Attacking a candidate’s physical features is not. A presidential debate is one place size doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter.  Here are some things that do matter:

Is our system of government still working?  If not, why not?

Are elections fair?  Is it okay to draw weirdly irregular congressional districts in order to favor one political party over the other, effectively disenfranchising large groups of voters in the process?

Are corporations people?  Is giving money to political candidates a form of speech?

Why isn’t every American guaranteed affordable health insurance?

Why do we not have fast long-range passenger trains or light-rail service in major cities?

Why are the same bailed-out banks with federal charters allowed to go back to the same reckless banking practices that led to the 2008 financial crisis?

With no threatening neighbors on our borders, why do we shell out more for “national security” than the next 8-10 biggest military powers combined, where are the demonstrable benefits, and what are the opportunity costs entailed in continuing doing so?

Is climate change really a hoax perpetrated by tree-hugging liberals and pseudo-scientists?

Will recent Supreme Court decisions raising the bar for the kind of class-action suits that hold big corporations accountable for hurting, cheating, defrauding, and discriminating against people be allowed to stand?

Why are such questions not being addressed by any of the candidates standing on the stage in the highly publicized Republican debates so far?

The two major Democratic candidates have, in fact, debated important domestic- and foreign-policy issues, but who’s even watching?  In the ratings, Hillary and Bernie talking about the future of the country can’t hold a candle to a primetime knee-slapper with characters out of central casting for Caddyshack.  But the joke is on us.

As Washington has descended to new depths of decay and dysfunction, voters have looked the other way to a degree that ought to have set off alarms decades ago.  If you think that nothing’s changed, that the electorate has always been as forgiving as it is now, you’re wrong.  Since the early 1980s, the average rate at which incumbents are turned out of office has been very, very low – about 5 percent for the House and 13 percent for the Senate.  During the period between 1946 and 1980, the “kill rates” for incumbents were double what they are now – 10 percent for the House and 22 percent for the Senate.  Arguably, the higher rate was still too low, given the essential importance of competitive elections and political accountability in a healthy republic.

We can rightly blame on the mass media for not doing a professional or responsible job of covering our elections or holding politicians’ feet to the fire.  We can blame the politicians for selling out to plutocrats and pressure groups.  We can blame a Supreme Court for placing the U.S. Congress on the auction block out of patently ideological motives.  All true enough, but it begs the question(s).  How did it happen?  Could it have been prevented?  Can it be fixed?

The answer to all three questions is in the mirror. We let it happen.  We elected these guys. We could have prevented it.  But we keep re-electing them.

The business of government is governing, not promoting or protecting Big Business. Clearly Congress and the Supreme Court missed that civics lesson. We need to force Washington to get down to the business of government again.   Defeating incumbents who exist to serve special interests rather than the public interest is only a first step, but without it, nothing will change.

There’s still a chance we can fix it, that it isn’t too late.  As voters, we have to wake up and do our part to awaken others to the crisis we’re facing in this country.  We can’t expect Washington to change unless we change it.


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