Election Reflection (Part 2): It's the System, Stupid

Political pundits are all remarking about how much money was spent in the 2012 election but how little has changed.  It shouldn't surprise anyone.  American government suffers from structural gridlock.  Most incumbent career politicians have no realistic chance of being defeated.  They have rigged the system to benefit themselves.  We can't "throw the bums out."  We simply can't.

In this past election voters got the usual result.  Around 95% of all House incumbents will have been re-elected (a few races are still undecided but not enough to affect the percentage very much), even though poll after poll shows public approval of Congress scraping bottom around 10%.   Over the course of a century incumbents have created more and more advantages for themselves.  Only during the Great Depression did the House incumbent re-election rate dip below 85%.  

Usually the US Senate is capable of undergoing somewhat greater change in a single election than the US House because incumbent advantages in the Senate are sometimes diminished.  In a Senate race, the stage is bigger and there's more press coverage, which gives the public a chance to get to know the challenger who would otherwise remain obscure in a House race. 

But not so this year.  Senate incumbent power was overwhelming.  Only two Senate incumbents lost, and they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Longtime Indiana Senator Richard Lugar got ambushed by the tea party in his Republican primary.  Intra-party insurgencies like the tea party are rare.  You can be sure that the Republican party will learn how to deal with its tea party faction and that Republican incumbents will again be protected during their primaries. 

The only other incumbent senator to lose was Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren.  Brown had won in a special election for the late Ted Kennedy's seat (Kennedy was there so long that we regularly use this possessive language, as if he owned that seat) in 2009, when rising anti-Democrat sentiment brought a relatively high percentage of Republican-leaning voters to the polls in a low-turnout situation.  A presidential election year in Massachusetts with the usual Democrat turnout was fated to be far different.  The temporary success of Republican Senator Scott Brown from deep blue Massachusetts was a freakish anomaly.

None of this is what the founding fathers intended.  The US House was supposed to be highly changeable and the most sensitive to shifting public opinion.  With elections held frequently, the House was intended to be the people's steering wheel and brakes.  When government was going in the wrong direction, the founders expected that House elections would force a course correction.  If anything, they worried that the House would make government too changeable.  But today the US House of Representatives is a bastion of careerism, far less responsive to the will of the people than the Senate or the presidency.  The people's steering wheel and brakes have seized up.

Some will say that with the nation so closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, divided government is appropriate.  Perhaps. But divided government is promoting collective irresponsibility.  When the economy does not improve or when the nation's debt problem goes unsolved, each side points the finger at the other.  No one person or party is held responsible. 

Career politicians avoid taking responsibility at all costs.  Ideally, if ordinary citizens – people who loved their country more than their own political offices –were running things, then things would be different.  Civic duty would trump partisanship, and though principles are important, compromises would be forthcoming.  If the compromise resulted in too much government, or perhaps too little government, a remedy would be waiting at the time of the next election.  One side or the other would lose seats, and the policy could then be adjusted one way or the other.  But for this to happen – and for government to work as it should – it must be realistically possible to defeat incumbents and create a Congress capable of addressing the nation's real challenges.


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