Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Simplistic Explanation of America's Political Descent

This was for my intro to American government course I took this year. Very shallow analysis, but it was an intro course. 
According to Rasmussen Reports, as of May 2nd, 2013, Barack Obama’s approval rating sits at forty-seven percent, while his disapproval rate is at fifty-two percent. This is the lowest his approval rating has been since his reelection. Further more, only twenty-four percent of the electorate surveyed says that they strongly approve of his performance, while forty percent strongly disapprove of his job performance.[1] This has been blamed on partisan preference, skewed polling results and the fact that the president gets all of the glory in good times and all of the blame in bad times. It is of note though that in modern American politics, substantial portions of the population are always fiercely unhappy with the President, Congress, parties and interest groups, and there is seemingly nothing anyone can to about that. This problem is complex, but for the interest of generality, it should be considered threefold: extreme partisanship, unparalleled dissemination of information via the Internet to the electorate, and misrepresentation of constituents by elected officials.
According to Gallup, presidential approval in modern history peaked with John F Kennedy Jr. with his average approval rating being seventy-point one percent.[2] This could be attributable to his not having served a full term and thus the results of his policies never being fully realized, or it could be directly correlated to his being the first televised presidency that showcased what is thought to be the most charismatic United States president. Previously, presidents had reached out to the masses via print and radio, but never before had a campaign debate been televised. Despite the fact that by all accounts Nixon won the debate on merit, Kennedy won by the fact that he was so much better suited to the camera. From that moment on, public persona came to play a larger role in presidential elections. While affairs were known to pervade the highest office in America, they were never seen as definitive of the president’s term in office. This changed however with the election of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton came into office after twelve years of republican leadership (and abysmal democratic leadership the previous four years before that). His presidency was however marred by scandal when news of his infidelity with a White House intern broke via the Drudge Report and was later picked up by the more mainstream, The Washington Post.[3] This was really the Internet’s first foray into directly influencing politics. Officially gone were the days that all Americans received their news from the same news outlet with one side of the story being presented. This opened the proverbial Pandora’s box in that the electorate now realized that from the Internet, they could ascertain more information from more sources and compare the facts of positions and issues more easily. From there, the Internet exploded. Debates from the 2012 election were viewed by millions of people the world over live via Google, YouTube, CNN and more with many offering charts at the bottom of the screen that showed electorate approval dipping and peaking as the candidates were speaking. Furthermore, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter played vital roles in this past election in that people on either coast were able to instantaneously communicate with one another and debate amongst themselves. From this, Romney’s “binders of women” and promise to fire Big Bird took on a life of their own as they became blog fodder for weeks after the debates.
The internet, as it relates to politics, is a two edged sword as it allows for the immediate sharing of information from various sources to people all over the world, not just within the confines of the United States. However, it also allows off hand remarks to become overexposed and be ruthlessly torn apart long after they are made. Additionally, the Internet allows for the dissemination of false information that has a tendency to go mainstream. An asterisk to how the Internet has undermined politics must be made to include the sharing of lewd and/or embarrassing pictures of politicians via the Internet. This has done incalculable damage to candidates and their respective parties. Essentially, the proliferation of television, and now the Internet, has allowed the electorate to see every flaw of politicians and blow them out of proportion.
The cynicism and disappointment coming from the electorate cannot be solely based upon the Internet however. Partisanship has been crucial in the devolution of modern politics. In the mid 19th century, the United States divided into the North (The Union) and the South  (The Confederates). These were essentially different countries, but were in fact still one in the same. These factions were divided on the basis of what was at its basest level, political ideological differences, with elements of racism and state pride mixed in. Today, democrats and republicans have split off into two separate factions of their own, with their own respective network news stations, websites and clubs. This fracture that has split America has led to violence, racism and class-warfare that has more in common with the Civil War than most would care to admit. One of the main differences would be that the Southern states tend to lean Republican this time around, whereas they were previously largely democratic.
The average voter has never heard of the delegate, trustee and responsible parties models. Research suggests that on easier to understand issues (i.e. racial issues, etc…) voters would prefer that their elected officials acted as delegates, directly representing the beliefs and wishes of their constituents when voting. On issues of economics, discerning a stance can prove too taxing for many average voters, so they trust that through the trustee model that their representative will vote how he or she thinks most of the constituents would vote were they to fully understand the matter at hand. Lastly, many voters would have their elected official vote with their party alignment on matters of foreign affairs so as to more easily assign blame and gratitude.[4]  However, voters do not and will not ever understand the nuances of these three models and no entire constituency will be comfortable with how their elected official chooses to apply them to their own voting. On some level, yes, the political elites have become too far removed from the people that they represent, especially in a day in age when career politicians reign supreme. Votes tend to be cast often times for political reasons with little to no regard for the stance of their constituency. Members of congress needing support for a bill may solicit votes from fellow members in exchange for help with a bill they are spear heading. An interest group could  influence a member of congress to vote contrary to what the people who elected him or her would want him to. Whether or not this is an example of failure on the part of political elites or a testament to the power of interest groups and lobbyists is up for debate.
Congress tends to be the most directly linked to the American people, causing this particular branch to take the majority of the flack. However, the executive office is far from immune to the sting of the scorned electorate. In short terms, it could easily be argued that a lot of Americans do not know what the job of the president entails. If the economy is bad, it is the president’s fault. If the price of gas increases, it is the president’s fault. If it rains on a picnic, it is the president’s fault. This is a position with significant power not only within the United States, but also in the world. This position is not however God, something people seem to forget. President Obama is inextricably linked too much of the policy making in this country as he has the power to veto legislation, influence policy and act as the face of America for foreign affairs. With his spearheading of the very controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, he is rightly lauded by his fans and raked across the coals by his opponents. This legislation was the basis of his 2008 campaign and the finishing of it a substantial portion of his 2012 platform. In this instance, it is not unreasonable for voters to hold the executive office accountable. To blame President Bush for the entirety of the recession was not, but more simplistically minded voters did not understand the abstracts of the situation and did just that.
 Until the American voting pool becomes more educated, it will continue to demand more from politicians than they can possibly give. It is completely reasonable to expect congressional members to vote in the way they were elected to do, but they cannot be held responsible for pleasing everyone. While the president can have a great effect on many aspects of policy and legislation, this position is not solely responsible for every aspect of government, a fact that many Americans should be made aware of.
To put it simply, the political elites have largely failed. While it can be hard to discern exactly what constituents want from their elected officials, it can be argued that the elected officials are not really even trying to figure that out anymore.  Career politician has become an unofficial job title with, at the federal level, no term limits on those elected to congress, the body of government supposedly most relatable to the average person. Sadly, these career politicians care most about reelection and with Americans reelecting ninety percent of United State House incumbents and ninety-one percent of United States Senate incumbents, once elected they’re pretty much set. Americans are so busy bickering in the comments section of Yahoo articles and buying bumper stickers to reflect their political ideology that they do not take the time to ensure that the person they are putting into office adequately reflects their own views. This leads directly into the problem of partisanship, as Republican voters tend to vote for the Republican candidate and Democrat voters for the democrat candidate, regardless of their specific policy preferences. Because politicians realize this, once elected they tend to do what they want once in Washington, regardless of what their constituents would want from them. Sure, once they are in office they will go to a few parades in their district and make everyone feel special because they got to meet Senator X and he shook their hand and was a real nice guy. Then they go back up to Washington and fail their constituents again. That same voter who had the best handshake of his or her life will read about how a bill that they felt so passionately for was defeated and they will curse congress and the president and God and everyone, but they won’t check to see how their elected official voted. They will not see that he was part of the majority that voted against the bill. So then come the next election they will vote him back into office and the cycle continues.
While the founding fathers would have never in their wildest dreams have imagined the globalization and technological advances that now play an inextricable role in American politics, they did see partisanship as a great danger. Federalist No. 10 is evidence that the founders of this country had no intentions of American politics being as partisan as it has become. In its very first lines, the document says that “among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice”.[5] This is to say that fervent opponent of factionalism and author of this paper, James Madison, saw it as one of the chief duties of any adequate union to prevent and/or stop the proliferation of factions, as they would work to weaken the union. The pessimism towards the government has a great many sources, but is deeply rooted in the extreme partisanship that has divided states, cities and even at times families within America.
Every branch of the political system must work to restore the public’s confidence in the system, or else it is doomed to further deteriorate. The office of the president should lead by example in overhauling its own image. Lofty campaign promises are made, but seldom kept. In President Obama’s first bid for the White House, he promised an improved economy, a prompt evacuation of American troops from Middle Eastern countries and transparency throughout. Whether or not his promises were well intended, they were not put into practice on the timetable he had given or in some cases, at all. This caused him to lose a rather substantial number of formerly ardent supporters as the hope and change they had voted for was slow coming.
Congress bears what is arguably the brunt of public scorn as these people are more accessible to the average voter than offices such as the presidency. In order to restore public confidence in congress, representatives and senators would do well to be more in tune with and available to their constituency. In a day in which members of congress vote on whims or to comply with a fellow congress member or interest group, voters feel that they have no real say in policy, a feeling that generates extreme apathy.
American politics has been condensed down to a two party system with various other, smaller factions that have little power other than to detract votes from the mainstream parties. These two parties, the GOP and Democratic Party, are accountable for nearly everything good and bad that their respective members do. Because of this, when a Republican congressman says something to the effect of rape acting as its own form of birth control, the entire GOP takes the heat from the media, democratic elites and inevitably the American people. The same can be said of scandals within the Democratic Party. These slip-ups seem to be becoming more and more frequent, but are in large part garnering this level of publicity because the other party’s incessant attempts to denigrate the opposition and the media being ever willing to oblige them. Once this reaches the public, the public finds the party to be more corrupt than they had previously thought and can become disenfranchised with the party system. If the parties were able to be less antagonistic of one another, it is possible that bipartisanship of both government elites and the people would be more easily achieved, but that would be a long shot.
Interest groups at their purest form are some of the best-intended aspects of the political system. Their intent is to represent a group of likeminded individuals to perpetuate a belief or cause to a level that reaches the government elites and impacts legislation. However, these groups often distort and corrupt their initial positions in the name of gaining political and/or cultural prominence. They also frequently work to sway votes by congressional members and underhandedly sway policy by all branches of government. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the power of interest groups, but these groups tend to act as one of the chief problems in legislation not reflecting the wishes of voters. In short, interest groups need more regulation so as to limit their scope of power.
The media has in large part in the last several years been considered an extension of the Obama White House, with Fox News being the glaring exception. Because of this, liberals tend to hear what they want to from the mainstream media, or MSM, while conservatives marvel at its one-sidedness. Gone are the days that bias was said to be the worst quality any reputable news source could have. Today, there are news stations, newspapers, magazines and websites for literally any political bias an American could possibly have. Because of this, people tend to tune into what they consider to be their opinion’s respective news source so that they can hear what they want to hear and then look down on the opposition. This has done more to promote partisanship than either political party could have ever fathomed. While it may be refreshing to hear the news from a like-minded source, this has caused different factions to have entirely different facts on issues and created further political discontentment. If possible, a less polarized media would be one of the best ways to branch the partisan divide in America.
To ask what is wrong with American politics is a question bound to be responded to with snorts of derision. Everyone knows there is a grave problem, but no one is willing to bend enough to make bipartisanship happen. The elites continue to seek power as the people sit idly by, convinced that corruption in Washington has reached the point of no return with the media goading them on in this belief. The problems in D.C. are many, but the ultimate solution to many of these problems would be to take sincere steps towards bipartisanship.

[1] "Daily Presidential Tracking Poll - Rasmussen Reports™." Daily Presidential Tracking Poll - Rasmussen Reports™. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

[2] "Presidential Approval Ratings -- Gallup Historical Statistics and Trends." Presidential Approval Ratings. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

[3] CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 02 May 2013.

[4] Jillson, Calvin C. American Government: Political Development and Institutional Change. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

[5] Jillson, Calvin C. American Government: Political Development and Institutional Change. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.