Fighting Disillusionment

Ballot BoxLast month I attended The Texas Tribune Festival at the University of Texas to learn more about public policy from a wide variety of knowledgeable people, including elected officials, journalists, attorneys, and members of advocacy groups. This is an incredible opportunity that I think all residents should take advantage of at some point to increase their awareness of state and national issues that affect their everyday lives.

After listening to Senator Cornyn speak, I thought about how people often criticize the Congress for being unproductive. According to a Gallup poll from October 17, 2014, the institution’s approval rating stands at 14% (note: it reached a low of 9% last year in the wake of the government shutdown). This is very troubling. However, what’s more problematic is that data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that for decades members of the Senate and House of Representatives have enjoyed reelection rates around 80% or better. How can we reconcile these numbers?

Here the analysis of political scientists like John R. Hibbing and Christopher W. Larimer (2008) offers some illumination: people don’t like congressional debate and compromise because they associate the former with squabbling and the latter with giving in to the opposition. In addition, Richard Fenno (1977) finds that the connection House members maintain with constituents back in their respective districts helps return them to Washington D.C. Yes, it appears that while many take issue with the institution, they often feel good about their member’s performance. Perhaps citizens need to pay closer attention to how their members behave at work because the issue can’t always be someone else.

As we approach another midterm election, I anticipate that the turnout will again be much lower than a presidential election year. If you examine the data published in a table by The Center for Voting and Democracy, then you will notice that this has been the case since the middle of the twentieth century. Understandably, the midterms don’t generate the same kind of excitement, but this isn’t a good reason for people to shirk their responsibility to participate in the democratic process. When I think about the political culture here in Texas, I immediately think about how patriotic duty runs deep. To me, the expression of this sentiment is incongruent with the fact that our voter turnout is lower than most other states across the country. Many people give reasons like “too busy” or “conflicting work” (27.4%) and “not interested” or “felt my vote didn’t matter” (16.9%) according to data in the Texas Civic Health Index produced by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Ignoring our role in the political system has serious implications. As explored in his insightful research (notably Making Democracy Work from 1993 and Bowling Alone from 2000), Robert Putnam found that corruption thrives in places where there is a low level of social capital. If people disengage the process, then the functioning of governing institutions suffers. We can make a conscious choice to participate to ensure that leaders are held accountable with regards to the policies they enact (or refuse to take action on). Casting your ballot is only the beginning. The challenge is to think beyond the election to find ways that you can influence lawmaking so that our society reflects your values.

I refuse to be cynical, i.e. resign myself to the notion that officials and institutions are so far adrift that nothing can be salvaged. I also refuse to believe that ‘more of the same’ will satisfy anyone. If you are disillusioned by the direction we are headed in, then November 4, 2014 needs to be the first step toward reinvigorating the political system in our republic.

*Click here for image source.

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