Dr. Hahrie Han is the Knafel Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences at Wellesley College and specializes in the way citizens connect to politics. She is the author of Moved to Action: Motivation, Participation, and Inequality in American Politics.
Congress has brought the country to the brink of disaster, yet again, and the American people are almost entirely fed up. Recent polls show that instituting communism in the United States is more popular than our democratically elected congressional leaders. How did we get to the point where Congress is less popular than the airline industry and the two parties are so gridlocked that keeping the lights on in government is a major accomplishment? More importantly, what will it take to break the cycle?
To answer these questions, we have to examine the way each party has been interpreting signals they receive from their constituents. Legislators are strategic actors, and they are keenly responsive to the concerns of constituents who help them win and stay in office. The clearest way constituents send signals to their elected officials is through elections. But what are recent election results telling us? Democrats regained control of the House in 2006 and the presidency in 2008, interpreting these elections as a “mandate” for their party’s platform. In 2010, the electorate seemed to change its mind, giving the election to Republicans and purportedly repudiating the Democratic agenda. Now, in 2011, the rejection of the personhood amendment in Mississippi and the measure to restrict collective bargaining in Ohio seem like a return to support for the Democratic platform. Is the electorate, in fact, this fickle?
It’s possible, but as pointed out by several notable commentators, an alternate way to interpret these pendulum swings is not as shifting support for one party’s platform over the other, but instead as support for a more centrist approach to governing. The electorate is reacting to overreach by each party, punishing Democrats when they push the agenda too far to the left and Republicans when they push the agenda too far to the right. Essentially, the parties perpetually over-interpret election results as an ideological mandate. Instead of working towards the kind of compromise needed to solve government problems, legislators from each party have been pushing for ideological agendas that satisfy the activist base within their parties. Then, their party suffers defeat in the next election cycle.
The problem facing Congress — and the “supercommittee” in particular — is that the messages the electorate sends are hard to discern. Legislators wade through a cacophony of news reports, constituent conversations, requests, polls, and other messages in an attempt to discern what the electorate really wants. Our democratic system is touted as the best form of government in the world, and it is truly revolutionary. But, by its very nature, democracy is messy. Its success depends on clear communication between constituents and representatives, and establishing those clear channels is no easy task. Part of the problem is a disconnect between messages legislators get from their activist base and messages from the broader electorate. Legislators often hear the voices of activists more loudly, because activists beat the drums with more fervor, lobbying elected officials, and participating in their campaigns. Members of the “supercommittee” need to create self-policing mechanisms that will make them more responsive to the desires of the broader electorate. Right now, the electoral and legislative system is set up to make it easiest for legislators to pay attention to the activists. One solution could be to create new rules that change the incentive structure for elected officials, making it more likely that they will hear a wider diversity of voices.
Each party could, for example, set aside campaign funds that go exclusively to lawmakers who demonstrate a willingness to work across the aisle. Today, legislators feel beholden to extremists who are more likely to donate and support re-election campaigns. Creating a fund like this would break candidates’ reliance on these ideologues and give them more leeway to comfortably make compromise. This idea has its own problems, but it is also likely to be more popular than Congress is today. The bigger point in discussing these ideas, however pie-in-the-sky they are, is to begin imagining a system that creates different incentives for our elected representatives to listen to constituents.
It is not a given that the most active constituents are the most ideologically extreme, but it is often a reality in modern politics. If Republicans and Democrats want to build a more stable, long-term governing base, they need to recognize the need for stronger centrist influences within the party. They must also change party rules to help those voices rise to the top. Doing so could help members of the “supercommittee” feel more latitude to make the kinds of compromise the country so desperately needs.