Americans, Congress and Democratic Responsiveness
Public Evaluations of Congress and Electoral Consequences
David R. Jones & Monika L. McDermott
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Paperback. x, 203 p. $22.95. ISBN-13: 978-0472034093
Reviewed by Pierre Sicard
Université de Picardie-Jules Verne (Amiens)
The authors, David R. Jones and Monika L. McDermott, are two distinguished associate professors of political science. Jones teaches at Baruch College and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and McDermott at Fordham University. This work is just over 200 pages long, comprising 8 chapters with 15 pages devoted to a methological appendix and a further 15 to a selected bibliography.
The book’s main contention is the received opinion among political scientists that Congress is a defective institution for being too insulated from the people, too removed from their daily concerns and largely unaccountable. This in turn explains the general indifference towards the federal legislature and the lack of knowledge voters evince when questioned about what goes on in Washington; it has earned Congress the comparison with a “black box”. Paradoxically, however, incumbents are overwhelmingly reelected while Congress as a collective body is poorly thought of. The authors seek to challenge another piece of conventional wisdom according to which the President is the person who determines the main orientations of government action – Congress supposedly having had limited policy input since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. As a consequence, the American citizenry is largely ignorant about their parliamentary assembly; this allows the people’s representatives to do their own thing and get away with it.
David Jones and Monika McDermott undertake to prove that Congress not only matters but that its work is better known and thus better evaluated than is commonly believed. They rely on polls that have been conducted since 1974 (mostly by the ANES – the American National Election Studies). Prior to that election, scholars focused on the presidency and considered that since the American voters manifested little interest in Congress, a closer look was unwarranted. They also resort to “voter psychology” in order to show that the general lack of knowledge about which party controls Congress does not amount to insensitivity to changes in policy direction. In fact, the average American is continually exposed to information through various sources, not only news flashes, but also innumerable shows, radio host programs that finally contribute to a perception of the gap between legislative decisions and his or her personal expectations.
This proved true when both houses of Congress turned Republican in 1994, a major shift away from a long period of almost undivided control of the legislative branch by the Democrats. Conservative voters, our authors argue, sensed that congressional policies were inspired by an ideology that better reflected theirs as shown by a succession of polls conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal from January to April 1995. The growing disaffection for Congress of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing after the 2006 mid-term victory reflected the decision made by the Democratic majority to avoid confrontation with President Bush over the troop surge in Irak, thereby adopting a moderate stance more popular with most voters. Jones and McDermott even detect a shift in evaluations of Congressional performance when control of an evenly split Senate briefly changed hands with the decision of James Jeffords, the Republican senator from Vermont, to become an Independent in 2001.
The gap in the perception voters have between their own ideological preferences and the policies pursued by Congress has two related types of consequences. If the majority party in Congress is unpopular, it will inevitably lose seats at the next general election, such losses being closely correlated with the degree of its unpopularity. Challengers become emboldened when they would otherwise prefer sitting out the contest because of the high personal and financial costs involved. Incumbents have to adapt their positions in order to be more in line with voters’ preferences. Failing this, they will rather retire than face defeat. Thus Congress proves to be a far more responsive body than has traditionally been deemed. This is welcome news since the federal legislature became far more assertive in the wake of the Watergate debacle. The conclusion is consequently upbeat: the American institutions – and Congress was meant to be the cornerstone of the whole edifice – work better than is usually felt and thought.
Such an assessment, based on serious research and a carefully constructed argument, is slightly puzzling. The authors draw a distinction between an elite group whose ideology is solidly grounded in convictions, a group that constantly keeps abreast of major developments, and a citizenry that has a far more limited grasp of what goes on in DC. They make no mention of the fact that barely one half of the electorate actually votes, feeling that their government is mostly irrelevant or hopelessly out of reach. Public policies will thus tend to be even more skewed in favor of those who manifest strong ideological preferences and who are more likely to get mobilized to achieve their ends. It follows that Congress gets more polarized. The Founding Fathers, in particular Jefferson, were keen to ensure a healthy democratic debate. Can it however live up to their ambition when it is mostly fed by tidbits of information? One is tempted to think that the Founding Fathers were indeed right in judging that their constitution was better suited to a republican government ruled by an enlightened elite than a democracy in which the representatives of the people are supposed to abide by the will of an infirm majority.
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