By Humphrey Taylor
Chairman, The Harris Poll
The latest polls paint a bleak picture of the American electorate. In our most recent Harris Polls, 78% of adults think the country is on the wrong track: only 32% give President Obama positive marks while a mind-bogglingly low 6% give Congress positive ratings. This is the lowest approval rating for Congress ever recorded and it may well be the lowest approval rating ever recorded for a democratically elected legislature.
Nonetheless, the malaise runs deeper than dissatisfaction with the current political incumbents. In August of 2011, the annual Harris Alienation Index reported big increases in the number of people who believe that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (73%), that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you”(73%), that “what you think doesn’t count very much anymore”(66%), that “most people in power try to take advantage of people like you,” and that 87% feel that “ the people in Washington are out of touch with the rest of the country.” Never before, in the history of the country, have so many Americans been so “alienated” from those who run the country. These numbers underlay the frustration expressed in the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.”
It can be argued that all this gloom is merely a reflection of the lousy economy, the large numbers of unemployed, and the continuing housing crisis. Obviously, these are all incredibly important factors. However, I also think there are other causes for this malaise and that it will continue even when the economy recovers.
First though, a word of caution, pollsters should strive to be politically neutral – not advocates.
As a pollster myself, I see my role as that of a professional voyeur, a eunuch, in no way aroused by what I am measuring and observing. Nevertheless, I am human and, like everyone else, I come with some baggage. My experiences growing up in Britain, having lived on five continents, and having conducted thousands of surveys in the UK, the USA, and more than 80 other countries, surely influenced my values and beliefs. Although I lived in New York for thirty-five years, what I observed elsewhere also conditioned my impressions of American politics and government.
When viewed through this international prism, the American system is strikingly different from most Western democracies with parliamentary systems. The most striking, and interrelated, differences include:
• The direct election of the US president, as compared to prime ministers chosen by the leading parliamentary parties.
• The difficulty that presidents have in passing controversial legislation and major reforms – in stark contrast to the power of prime ministers, whose parties normally control their legislatures.
• The gerrymandering of American Congressional districts so that the overwhelming majorities are safe Republican or Democratic seats, where the elections that really matter are the primaries rather than the general elections.
• The Senate filibuster rules that allow a minority to block legislation unless there is a 60 vote majority in its favor.
• The ability of American incumbents, parties and their supporters to raise and spend huge sums of money and buy unlimited amounts of TV and radio time.
• The political power and influence of all this money, or rather of all the people, companies and organizations involved.
These unique features of American democracy have a tremendous impact on what the American government can and does achieve. They help to explain why the United States was so late, compared to other affluent democracies, to introduce a government pension scheme (Social Security), to sign many international treaties, and why, Obama-care notwithstanding, it still does not offer universal health insurance.
The gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the resulting importance of primary elections, squeezes out the moderates and fills the House of Representatives with members who appeal to the relatively small minorities of party activists – Left-wing Democrats and Right-wing Republicans, many of whom regard compromise, or reaching across the aisle, as anathema.
The direct election of presidents often results in a White House with little or no skill or experience in working with the Congress to get things done. President Lyndon Johnson (who only became president because of the assassination of President Kennedy) was very unusual in that he really knew how to twist arms, cajole and make deals with members of Congress to pass important legislation. Most presidents have to learn this on the job and many have failed to do so entirely. It is no happenstance that some of the most important social legislation was passed under exceptionally strong presidents, whose parties controlled both houses of Congress, after or during major crises – by FDR in the Great Depression and by LBJ after the death of John Kennedy.
In all fairness, and in defense of the sometimes infuriating checks and balances in the US system of government that make it so difficult to do accomplish anything significant, I should point to the problems that can be caused when it is too easy to pass legislation. The post-war British Labour government nationalized the UK steel industry. As governments changed over the next 25 years: it was subsequently denationalized, nationalized again, and then denationalized again – by then, the industry virtually ceased to exist.
What is the relevance of all this today? It is difficult to be optimistic about the US political system as it currently operates. The House of Representatives seems more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. More money will be spent on the 2012 elections than ever before, much of it given by special interests for the sole purpose of electing the members of Congress that will help their “interests.”
The power and influence of the extremists in the two main parties seems to grow consistently stronger in every election cycle. And there is no indication that any of the underlying causes of these problems will change. Nonetheless, history suggests that we should be cautious of contemporary political judgments. Historians sometimes look more kindly on politicians than their contemporaries do. Speaker Reed famously explained, “A statesman is a dead politician.” George W. Bush additionally pointed out, rather optimistically perhaps, that Truman and Eisenhower, although much reviled when they left office, are now regarded as good presidents. However irrationally, I remain an incurable optimist.