It’s National Voter Registration Day here in the USA. I’ll give a little commentary on that subject, since it’s extremely consequential and yet too few people take the time to think much about it.
In America, the approaching election is called a “mid-term” election, because it’s in the middle of the term of the current president. It doesn’t have any direct effect on the presidential administration (though its indirect effects can be immense). However, though the president wields tremendous power, more than any other individual in the nation at any given time, the collective power of the Senate and the House of Representatives—the Congress—is greater still, and more far-reaching. Congress creates and modifies the laws that the Executive Branch is tasked with enforcing. It is the Legislative Branch (Congress) that confirms the judiciary at the Federal level, that confirms the various other executive appointments, and that codifies the duties and activities of the regulatory agencies brought into existence by law. And the record of the Legislative Branch—in the eyes of the citizenry they nominally serve—has been appalling for a very long time.
The reported approval rating of Congress over the last few decades has been breathtakingly low, sinking close to single digits at times (as low as 11%, and rarely exceeding 16-18%). Based on these numbers, nearly 9 out of 10 Americans don’t think Congress is doing a good job. Yet, despite these numbers, over ninety percent of incumbents are consistently voted back into office. This absurd and idiotic contradiction has led to, among the least of its horrors, profoundly mediocre Congressional careers that nevertheless span entire lifetimes.
A member of Congress who knows that his or her job is over ninety percent secure—even in the face of approval ratings consistently below twenty percent—is a member of Congress who doesn’t feel beholden to the citizenry in any significant sense. The door is thus flung wide for a combination of incompetence and corruption that is staggering—and nauseating—to behold. Congresspersons are almost uniformly more concerned with what their donors want than what the citizens of their states and districts want, let alone with what they honestly think is best for the country, producing a hideous, mutated mockery of what is supposed to be a representative government.
How do we American citizens allow this to happen? I doubt there’s one simple answer—there rarely is—but some of the forces at work are reasonably clear. One is simply a fallacy of self-evaluation, related to the fact that most people rate themselves above average in most areas of personal ability…a mathematical absurdity. I suspect that many voters see Congress in general as doing an abysmal job, but assume, by that powerful, hard-to-resist narcissism that typifies humanity, that their congressperson is doing at least acceptable work. They might further imagine that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, so bringing in some new person is likely to make things worse.
This doesn’t actually make sense. Of course, if you are one of the 11 to 18 percent of people who approves of Congress’s work product, then you have no reason to vote against the incumbents. But if you are not among that small minority of approvers, and if you cannot adequately judge how your congressperson’s effectiveness compares to all the others—and odds are you can’t—then the most sensible position to take is that the legislators who represent your state and/or district are also doing a job that would only earn a less-than-twenty percent approval rating. This means that, if you were to randomly pick some new candidate, of random ability, more than eighty percent of the time you would be getting at least some improvement.
Think about that. You don’t even have to evaluate a potential new candidate to know that they are more likely to do a better job for you than to do a worse one compared to the person who is currently in your employ.
And make no mistake, your members of Congress are your employees. They are not your leaders, and you should guard yourself jealously against thinking of them as such. If you’re ever tempted to think of presidents, senators, representatives, governors, mayors, or any other elected officials as your “leaders”, then just remind yourself that the German word for leader is “Führer”. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells in your head and cause you at least to think twice, then you’re in a very bad state indeed, and the rest of us should probably be nervous about you.
If you owned or managed a business, and one of your employees was doing work that merited a meager one out of five stars or less (the equivalent to having an approval rating under twenty percent), and you had no obvious means by which to make him do better, then a proper business decision would be to fire and replace him, even if you had to choose his replacement almost blindly. Any candidate, with a random level of ability, would be better than your current employee four out of five times.
People regularly throw away ridiculous sums of money on games of chance with the tiniest possibility of reward. Why not play a game in which, four out of five times, you’re going to get at least some gain? And don’t fool yourself; the deeds of Congress have real and powerful effects on your life, as do the actions of your state and local government. The President is important, too, but right now, he’s mostly a distraction.
This brings us to another major part of what allows incumbents to be reliably reelected in the face of dismal success: most people who can vote simply don’t. Even in presidential elections, only a minority of potential voters actually go to the polls. I say minority because, though as many as sixty percent of “eligible voters” turn out to vote for presidents, many people who would be eligible to vote never register. In mid-terms, even of those who are registered, a minority cast a ballot.
There seems little doubt that those who are doing well under the current system—those who are among the 11 to 20 percent who approve of Congress, in other words—are inclined to make it their business to vote, and to vote for the incumbents. Change, for them, would be undesirable.
The other 80+% give themselves many excuses for not participating, and those who prefer the status quo are more than generous in providing those excuses. Gerrymandering, laws making it more difficult for minorities to register and vote, limitation of polling sites, a general sense of disenfranchisement and learned helplessness—these are just a few examples of the excuses that can and will be provided.
But remember, not to choose is a choice in and of itself…the choice to allow that minority of people for whom Congresspersons—and other elected officials—really work now to remain in control of your life. It may be difficult to register, and to vote, but I have little doubt that most people frequently engage in tasks of equivalent or greater difficulty. How much effort do you put into attending sporting events or concerts, shopping for the clothes that you want, or buying the latest version of your smartphone? How much money—which represents your time and energy—do you spend on lottery tickets, on beer or wine, on your favorite foods, on coffee and donuts, and all the various other little pleasures? How much energy do you put into socializing and looking for a mate, or into caring for your family, protecting them against even the unlikeliest of dangers, while ignoring and avoiding actions that could have a real impact on your life, on your future, and on that of your family for years to come and longer?
If you choose not to act, then you have no moral ground on which to stand to complain about the outcome of events. You’re a willing victim, not just of the corrupt and the corrupting, but of your own laziness.
So, if you can legally do so, register…and then vote! If you worry that you don’t have enough expertise or information to choose the best candidate, console yourself with the fact that, in a situation in which fewer than one in five people approve of the job that Congress is doing, you’ve got very good odds of choosing someone better, even if you choose by the flip of a coin. Later, if and when Congressional approval ratings go up significantly, then more thought and self-education will be required to continue to improve things. But the way things are now, you’re not likely to go far wrong.
Vote. All the gerrymandering that exists, all the obstacles that are in place, all the money spent on supporting incumbent candidates, cannot stand against a truly engaged and active, committed voting public. Relish the thought of ensuring that all those millions and billions spent by wealthy, entrenched interests are flushed down the toilet, as the people whose loyalty they have bought are ejected from the halls of government. Give the corruptors and the corrupted a nasty shock. The imagined looks on their faces alone would be worth the effort, and the increasing sense of enfranchisement, of taking control of your government and bringing it back into the hands of the citizenry to whom it belongs, will yield incalculable returns.
Don’t be mistaken; there will still be disagreement, conflict, and problems. There will probably always be disagreements about the best way to run a government. That’s fine. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We disagree, we discuss and debate, we try one thing, and if it doesn’t work, then we try something else, until we get improved results. New problems will continue to surface, requiring our effort and attention to solve. This is the nature of life, and it can be both stimulating and glorious. But at least, as a starting point, get rid of the entrenched, corrupt, unresponsive people who call themselves your elected officials, and who do abysmal work, take flagrant bribes, and yet continue to be employed.
If you don’t make it your business to vote against them, then you are tacitly voting for them…and you will deserve whatever outcome ensues.