According to Gallup, only 15 percent of Americans approve of the job the current Congress is doing. Furthermore, only about half as many Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust and confidence in Congress today as did in 1972.
The most obvious solution would be to defeat incumbent representatives and senators when they run for re-election.
In fact, several polls earlier this year found the strongest anti-incumbency sentiment in decades. However, only one incumbent member of Congress has lost a primary in 2014, with another possibly headed to a runoff. It is likely that more incumbents will lose in the remaining primaries, but there is no evidence of the political earthquake the polls suggested.
A second option is to protest excessive partisanship by registering either as an independent or as a member of a third party. An increasing number of Americans are choosing that path. For example, the percentage of Pennsylvania’s registered voters who are neither Democrats nor Republicans has more than doubled in the past 20 years. However, this is not a practical way to change a dysfunctional Congress.
The laws of 12 states (including Pennsylvania) require residents to register in a specific political party prior to election day in order to be eligible to vote in that party’s primary. In at least six other states, one or both major parties bar unaffiliated voters from participating in party primaries.
Therefore, because most congressional districts are safe for either the Democrats or the Republicans, unaffiliated voters in at least these 18 states are forfeiting any meaningful role in deciding who will represent them in the U.S. House.
Some frustrated Americans are choosing a third alternative: opting out of the political process. Although voter turnout in primary elections is always much lower than turnout in general elections, participation in the recent Pennsylvania primary was abysmal. Democrats had a hot race for the gubernatorial nomination, but only 20 percent of them voted; in absolute numbers, about 186,000 fewer Democrats voted for governor than in 2010.
Admittedly, the Republicans’ 12 percent turnout was worse, but the GOP did not have a top-of-the-ticket contest to excite voters.
Historically, general election turnout has been lower in nonpresidential years than when there has been a presidential race on the ballot.
Therefore, turnout this November is almost certain to be well short of turnout in 2012. However, the poor turnout by Pennsylvania Democrats last month may underscore what is expected to be the most serious problem for Democrats across the country this fall – that is, Republicans will be more motivated to vote than Democrats will be.
Understandably, some Democrats are disillusioned with President Obama because the economic recovery has been slow, income inequality has grown, and immigration reform has stalled. However, staying home will not solve the problem. Rather than helping to advance policies these Democrats favor, they will be making it easier for Republicans to win both the House and the Senate, thereby blocking those policies for two more years.
As a fourth option, some independents and Democrats may decide to show their disapproval of Obama by voting Republican this fall. That approach could be self-defeating in the long run. The president’s term will end in January 2017. However, most of the senators elected this year will serve at least four years longer than Obama. Furthermore, in view of the power of incumbency, those representatives elected this November are likely to remain in Congress long after Obama is out of office. Therefore, independents and Democrats who base their vote for Congress on opposition to the president could be stuck with legislators with whom they disagree long after Obama is gone.
There is a fifth alternative. Although their uncompromising approach to politics is responsible for much of the gridlock in Washington, tea party Republicans have demonstrated the most effective way to change Congress: participate more actively in the election process. Unfortunately, too many Americans have been unwilling to vote at all or, at least, unwilling to assure they are voting for candidates with whom they agree on the major issues. Without question, much of the political advertising presents a distorted view of what candidates actually believe, have already done or will try to accomplish. Nevertheless, with a little digging, it is possible to get a better picture of where a candidate really stands and of whether that candidate is willing to compromise with the other side.
Democracy is hard work. However, as demonstrated in numerous other countries, the absence of democracy makes life even harder.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s Small Business Advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.