Satistfaction with Congress and satisfaction with congresspeople
September 24, 2007
In a previous post I noted that the long term trend of satisfaction with U.S. Congress shows consistently lower satisfaction levels for Congress than for the U.S. Supreme Court and President. In fact, the last year in which Congress enjoyed a rating of “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of satisfaction by more than 30% of the population in the Gallup yearly survey was 1988.
I stated that the fact that incumbency rates of this unpopular body are extremely high (visualized in this chart) contradicts accepted democratic doctrine (which implies that through frequent elections the public can ensure that Congress functions in accordance with the voters’ sentiments). I further stated that the reason for the high incumbency rates is that much as the voters are unhappy with the incumbents they have no reasonable credible alternative candidates – since “reasonable” excludes the candidate of the other major party, while “credible” excludes all minor party candidates.
In a comment, Harald Korneliussen pointed out that lack of alternatives may not be the reason for re-election of incumbents. Voters have no way to replace Congress as a whole, but rather they have only the option of replacing the representatives in their own districts. It could be that voters are unhappy with Congress as a whole, but are quite happy with their own representatives.
The data seem to back up this idea. Approval of “own representative” is consistently reasonably high (~60%), and while people see congresspeople in general as corrupt and serving special interests, they see their own representatives as less corrupt and taking somewhat better care of the interests of the people.
It turns out, then, that people rather like their own representatives, even though they don’t like the representative body as a whole, and have very low opinion on other people’s representatives. Putting aside the question of the way Congress functions as a body, voters think that, unlike their own elected representative, the representatives sent by other districts to Congress are no good.
To some extent this clears the electoral system of the charge I have leveled against it of somehow preventing any reasonable candidates from running despite the urgent wishes of the voters. Voters do not seem to feel an acute shortage of better candidates. Voters are still interested in having third party alternatives – although, who knows, maybe they want the third party only as an option for those voters in other districts who keep sending corrupt people into Congress. It may also be that when saying that their own representatives satisfy them, they do so when comparing them to their negative perception of other congresspeople, setting the bar quite low.
Be that as it may, the situation is paradoxical. If everybody elects an honest, true to the people representative, who is it exactly that sends to Congress all those corrupt representatives?
At least one of the following options must be true:
- Citizens have an unrealistic perception of their own representative – many of them send corrupt representatives to congress but are not aware of it.
- Citizens have an unrealistic perception of other people’s representatives – most representatives are much less corrupt than people perceive them to be.
(To be continued.)