Satistfaction with Congress and satisfaction with congresspeople (cont’d)
September 25, 2007
A review of the facts so far: Americans are not satisfied with Congress, they think most congresspeople are corrupt and serve special interests, but are reasonably satisfied with their own representatives and believe they are not corrupt (at least not as corrupt) and serve the people (at least to some extent).
Clearly, the public’s sentiments cannot be an accurate perception of reality: If each district sends an honest representative who is devoted to serving the people, then how can the majority of congresspeople be corrupt? The public either judges most representatives too harshly, or is deluded regarding their own representatives.
The source of the contradiction may be in the different ways in which the people gather information about Congress as a whole and about their own representatives.
The public judges Congress as a whole, and thus congresspeople en masse, based on the public’s understanding of how Congress works as a system and based on the legislation produced by Congress. The public is aware that congresspeople need the financial support of special interests in order to finance election campaigns. As Congress enables the agendas of special interests at the expense of common interests, the public naturally comes to believe congresspeople are corrupt. This belief is reinforced by the occasional conviction of a congressmember of bribery.
On the other hand, however, it is quite difficult for the average citizen to follow the day-to-day activity of his representative. Therefore, for the most part, representatives are judged by their constituents based on their rhetoric and public relations material. Thus, representatives can tailor their public image to suit the desires of the majority of their constituents, almost regardless of what their actual conduct is.
This state of affairs points to one of the main points of failure of democratic doctrine. According to the doctrine, voters can effectively and relatively easily assess the performance of elected officials. They can observe readily available sources of information and without much trouble find out whether any particular official serves them well. Then, they can punish those candidates whose record is poor by not re-electing them.
It is rather obvious, however, that this is doctrine is untrue. The effort that needs to be spent by voters to follow particular officials in order to be able to realistically assess their performance is non-trivial. Spending that effort is not justified by the power endowed by having that information. Voters decide (quite rationally) not to spend the effort.