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Rock the Boat PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - National Politics
Tuesday, 31 October 2006 22:52

Reader issue #605If you are an independent voter - that is, a person who does not identify with either of the major political parties - Democratic and Republican leaders would prefer that you did not vote on November 7.

Not only that, but they're doing everything in their power to keep you from voting. They might not break into your house and tie you up until November 8, but they do invade your home through television ads hell-bent on disgusting you with the campaigns, the candidates, and the process. They want you to turn off, tune out and drop out.

Voters often complain that negative campaigning alienates them from the candidates and the electoral process. They plead that a positive campaign would make them more likely to vote for a candidate, rather than voting against somebody or not casting a ballot at all.

But this is an idealized view of contemporary elections, and it ignores an admittedly cynical alternative perspective: that negative campaigning accomplishes its goals perfectly, and that politicians and their handlers have no interest in a democracy in which a vast majority of eligible voters cast ballots based on a reasoned analysis of candidates' positions.

Independent voters in this formulation are variables that campaigns seek to neutralize or eliminate. Campaigns have become less about shaping opinion - winning or changing minds - than herding people whose votes are easily predictable and marginalizing those whose ballots are not.

Some methods of exclusion are legally dubious, at best. If you've been paying attention, you've no doubt heard stories about party operatives disenfranchising voters in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. (A compelling if obviously partisan overview can be found in Robert F. Kennedy's Rolling Stone article "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?":

These anecdotes are merely the most blatant indications of a larger strategy to control the election process not through boosting participation but by repressing it.

The combination of a disengaged populace, single-party rule, heightened partisanship, and institutionalized protection of incumbency has led to a political culture that shoves independent voters out of the picture.

Most distressingly, this phenomenon doesn't end after the ballots are counted. It encompasses the way governmental bodies do business and therefore spills over into public policy.

They do this to us because we let them. And there is an obvious solution.

I'm normally not the "throw the bums out" type, but when the situation gets as bad as it is now, that's the nuclear option. It's getting close to time to push the damned button.


The Campaigns

In the Quad Cities, the race that has dominated public consciousness this election season is between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Mike Whalen, competing for the U.S. House of Representatives in Iowa's First District.

Although it's a local race, the tone was set early by the national party organizations. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee flooded the market with ads that suggested unsubtly that Braley was a communist, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has tarred Whalen with George W. Bush and the accusation that his Heart of America Restaurants & Inns pays some workers minimum wage. The allegation against Braley was "silly" - that's Whalen's word - while the fact that a man who runs a hospitality business pays some workers who receive tips the legal minimum is obvious even when it's presented in an indignant tone.

In the waning days of the campaign, there are some positive spots running for the race, but the ridiculousness of those incessant early ads has soured most sensible people. And although it's a single race, the ubiquity of the ads on local television have arguably poisoned voters' minds on virtually every race.

The question I've been asking people is simple: "Do you know anybody outside of hardcore partisans who's excited about any candidate running for any office this year?" With few exceptions, the answer is "no."

Other high-profile races haven't elevated the level of discourse much, either.

In Illinois, incumbent governor Rod Blagojevich looks to be nearly a lock for re-election, even though there appears to be an excellent chance that he'll one day end up in prison, just like his immediate predecessor. The Republican challenger, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, should be a sensible alternative, except that her campaign has proved itself inept.

The Illinois congressional race in the Quad Cities, for the seat of retiring Lane Evans, features Andrea Zinga, a Republican who was defeated by Evans 61 percent to 39 percent in 2004 and was expected to again be the GOP sacrifice. Then Evans, after the primary, announced that he would not seek re-election for health reasons. That move allowed his aide, Phil Hare, to secure the Democratic nomination without having to go through a primary.

One race for Congress is overwhelmed with ads from the national party organization, while the other features one leftover candidate and one nominated through cronyism. It's no wonder that voters in the Quad Cities are fed up.


Why Is Turnout So Low?

Voter turnout has declined dramatically since the 1960s, but that drop mostly happened in the early '70s. The percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in presidential elections topped 60 percent in the '60s and has since settled in between 50 and 55 percent.

In off-year Congressional elections, turnout has dropped from near 50 percent in 1966 to between 35 and 40 percent in recent years.

This declining participation corresponds roughly with a decreased trust in the federal government. Throughout the 1960s, the percentage of respondents who said they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right" "just about always" or "most of the time" was higher than 60 percent, according to American National Election Studies. In 1970 and 1972, those percentages fell to 53 percent. And since then, they've fallen as low as the 20s (1978, 1980, 1990, 1992, and 1994) and only risen higher than 47 percent once - to 56 percent in 2002, in the election cycle after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In 2004, the percentage was 47 percent.

"Three Myths About Voter Turnout in the United States," a 2004 analysis by the conservative Cato Institute, claims to answer a lot of provocative questions about the role of money, campaign tone, and feelings about government on voter turnout. (The analysis is available at

The executive summary lays out the premise and the institution's conclusion: "Critics of American politics and elections often focus on low voter turnout in the United States. They argue that voter turnout is steadily declining largely because of voter cynicism caused by big-money campaigns and negative political advertising. ... Sophisticated and detailed studies of both public trust in government and the consequences of political advertising show that neither factor has a negative effect on voter turnout."

The analysis is generally strong, but it has a not-very-well-hidden agenda. Cato has a clear political aim, and that is turning back or preventing restrictions on campaign contributions and spending: "The proposed remedies [to lower voter turnout] - limiting political liberty through restrictions on campaign finance and on political advertising - are neither analytically sound nor necessary for a healthy body politic."

The Cato paper argues that negative advertising might actually stimulate participation. One study found that "campaigns with more negative advertising have a slightly higher rate of turnout among independents than more positive campaigns ... ." The author cites one compelling explanation: "Criticism of an opponent - particularly strong criticism - sends a message that something of substance is at stake in the election, that its outcome matters, and that this is a choice voters should care about."

Yet the study doesn't allow for the possibility that a negative tone is a feature of competitive contests, that voter participation might be higher not because of the ads but because the party organizations have mobilized their get-out-the-vote resources for close campaigns. The parties work hard to ensure that people on whose votes they can rely make it to the polls and have their votes counted.

With Cato's agenda and with its sometimes selective use of facts - it ignores Ross Perot's impact on voter turnout in 1992, for example - the Cato policy paper is easy to puncture. Yet even if one finds problems with the analysis' conclusions and methodology, it is still persuasive in showing that there's no obvious, direct correlation between voter turnout and the factors often cited as causes of voter cynicism - the volume of campaign spending, negative campaigning, and distrust of government.

But its conclusions remain counterintuitive, and there's a case to be made that if the individual factors of distrust of government, money, and negative ads aren't responsible for voter discontent, the combination of them could be.

And there are other contributing issues. Incumbents are re-elected to Congress at an alarming rate - typically 97 or 98 percent in any given election cycle.

And perhaps more fundamentally, the institution of Congress itself is arguably broken.


The Broken Branch

In their 2006 book The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America & How to Get It Back on Track, authors Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein say that Congress is not simply being Congress; they claim that the institution is in demonstrable decline, abdicating its responsibility to check other branches of government.

"Over a decade of Republican control," they write, "the House went from shrill opposition to a Democratic president, culminating in his impeachment, to reflexive loyalty to a Republican president, including an unwillingness to conduct tough oversight of executive programs or assert congressional prerogatives vis-à-vis the presidency - on matters ranging from the accessibility of critical information to war-making. The partisanship has bled over into areas where institutional norms have been particularly strong and resilient, such as the appropriations panels and the power of the purse."

The authors' point is that historically, Congress has acted as an independent body and a balance to executive power, even in times when its leadership and the president came from the same party. Now party allegiance trumps Congress' traditional role as a deliberative body; the political outcome - be it pushing through the party's agenda or the preservation of power and control - is more important than sound public policy.

The stark example of the introduction is the vote that the U.S. House took in November 2003 on President Bush's Medicare-prescription-drug-benefit proposal. The bill passed after a vote of nearly three hours.

To everybody except political junkies, that might sound unremarkable. But as Mann and Ornstein explain, House tradition dictates that votes should only last 15 minutes. That protocol was established to prevent the type of arm-twisting and political bargaining that characterized the Medicare vote.

Bending the rules is nothing new, but the current Republican leadership has made it a regular practice. As Democrat Jerrold Nadler is quoted in the book as saying: "It means a dictatorship [by the House Speaker]. It means you hold the vote open until you have the votes."

The Medicare vote is symptomatic, Mann and Ornstein write. The decline of Congress began under Speaker Jim Wright (a Democrat), they argue, but has become more dramatic under the Republican leadership of recent years. "In the 103rd Congress, under the Democrats, 9 percent of bills came to the floor under closed rules" that restrict amendments, they note. "In both the 106th and 107th, under Republicans, the number went to 22 percent - and to 28 percent in the 108th, 2003-2004." Preventing amendments, again, might sound like minutiae, but the effect is to limit the potential for compromise, they say; it's a tool to force an agenda without genuine deliberation.

While particularly harsh on the current Republican leadership of Congress, Mann and Ornstein are not partisan hacks; Mann is a fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institute, while Ornstein is resident scholar at the rightward American Enterprise Institute. In this case, they're simply picking on the people in power.

The authors anticipate a Democratic takeover of the House, and warn that party to deliver on promises of reform: "Will Democratic leaders submit to the embarrassment [of a defeated bill] or find tools, such as closed rules or extended votes, to help them prevail?

"If Democrats do succumb to those temptations when they recapture the majority - if they do not follow through on their pledges to run Congress more fairly and openly - we will be all over their case."


An Easy Answer

The Broken Branch is disturbing, as it traces Congress' role through history and then details and explains the current situation. What's initially disappointing is that Mann and Ornstein don't offer a comprehensive solution; the second part of the book's subtitle - "How to Get It Back on Track" - isn't a fair assessment of the book's contents.

"We wish we could now turn and provide a solid blueprint for recovery, a set of steps that would directly and clearly mend the broken branch and restore Congress to what it should be and at times has been," they write. "Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for a dysfunctional institution."

Yes, they talk about reforms that have been proposed, but as they note: "There have been signs ... that many members will toy with drastic changes in House or Senate rules and norms but will draw back as they approach the abyss."

Yet there is a "quick fix for a dysfunctional institution," as the authors themselves say. The most hopeful note they sound in the entire book is that "major change within Congress is mostly likely to originate outside. Citizens at the polls are the most powerful agents of change."

So get to it.

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