Democratic theory and popularity of the organs of government
August 18, 2007
According to the standard theory of democracy – as articulated, for example, in The Federalist Papers – which stresses the importance of frequent elections as a guarantee of the government having “common interest with the people“, the Supreme Court should be viewed by the public with great suspicion. The Supreme Court is, after all, a powerful, non-representative, non-accountable body. Why is it then the most popular organ of the U.S. government?
Congress, on the other hand, is the organ of the U.S. government in which the public has least confidence. As confidence in government ebbs and flows, confidence in Congress seems to continually be at about half the confidence in the Supreme Court, with confidence in the Presidency somewhere in between the two (except for a few years after 9/11 in which the President enjoyed unusually high confidence).
Why are the elected organs of government less popular than the non-elected one?
Another serious problem with the standard theory is the fact that despite the non-popularity of congress, incumbency rates are extremely high (about 95% for the House, about 90% for the Senate). If the public does not like its congresspeople, why does it keep electing them? The simple answer for this question is obviously that the available alternative (the other major party’s candidate) is not perceived as being any better than the incumbent. But this begs the deeper question which is why don’t other, better, alternatives become available.