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.

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4 Responses to “Democratic theory and popularity of the organs of government”


  1. “If the public does not like its congresspeople, why does it keep electing them?”

    Although lesser-evil could be a factor, I think there may be a simpler explanation for this: although congress as a whole is unpopular, it’s not clear that the representatives are unpopular with their own constituencies. It’s probably the other people in congress they dislike, not “their man”.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    This possibility is to some extent born out by polls: while only 18% believe Congress serves the interests of the people, 46% believe their own representative does so.

    Of course, 46% is not a very impressive number. But even that is probably skewed by the fact that many of the people surveyed have actually voted for their sitting representative. It takes an unusual level of self-reflection and candor to be able to admit that you voted for someone who does not serve you, just because the other guy was worse. The same person would probably get much lower marks from the same people if it wasn’t for the fact that he got their votes some time back.

    This, of course, is one of the main functions of elections – legitimizing the rulers. By going through the formal act of elections, the public is manipulated into approving of the rulers.


  3. […] 24th, 2007 In a previous post I noted that the long term trend of satisfaction with U.S. Congress shows consistently lower […]


  4. […] faithful to them. However, Congresspeople do not enjoy a high levels of approval or confidence (see 1, 2, 3). Also, “men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running […]

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