In economics, students are taught to assume that people are essentially rational. In politics, it seems, you have to assume the opposite. Why do people keep re-electing their representatives, even when they're fed up with Congress? A Gallop poll released today gives us and answer, along with a fascinating look into the nutty psychology of living in a democracy.
The newest data on American’s approval of Congress shows that only 16% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, a number essentially unchanged from the beginning of 2013. At the same time, 46% of Americans approve of the job their individual congressional representative is doing. A few things could account for this disparity — gerrymandered districts, a rep's support for local projects, partisan divides — but the essential point it boils down to is a disconnect in who Congress represents versus who the public perceives it to represent.
One way the disparity can be explained is through Fenno's paradox. In his 1978 book Home Style: House Members in Their Districts, political scientist Richard Fenno described the phenomenon wherein even if voters disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, they tend to approve of their own representatives. He attributes this to the representative's "home style," their attention and services to their district. Constituents know that their representative supports them locally (and the majority of the time represents their party) and brings home the bacon, so to speak, with federal dollars for local projects. But Congress is far away.
The data from Gallup supports that theory that a representative known by constituents will have more local approval than Congress as a whole. 62% of respondents who knew the name and party of their representative approved of the job he or she was doing. Gallup concluded that people who don't even know who their rep is would decide how they feel based "largely on their generally negative feelings about how the broader institution is doing." Furthermore, the respondents who could name their representative tended to be older, "somewhat Republican," and more likely to vote, explaining why representatives keep getting re-elected even when the public is furious with Congress.
And that's where partisan divides come in. Another explanation for the approval disparity is that by virtue of majority-rules democratic process, in any given district, a voter is more likely to belong to the same party, and have voted for their representative. This effect is exaggerated in gerrymandered districts, where districts are redrawn to increasing the concentration of one party's supporters in a district, and scattering the other party’s supporters among many districts.
Sam Wang argues that gerrymandering is the reason that even though Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives in the 2012 election, Republicans still have control to the tune of 33 more seats than Democrats. This isn't to say that Democrats don't try to play the same game when they get the chance, but they only control redistricting in six states, and don't do it as well.
The years of deadlock in Congress, most recently around the fiscal cliff and the sequester, are what's mostly to blame for Congress's low approval rating. But in today's highly divisive political environment, each party is blaming the other for causing the deadlock. Voters are less likely to see their rep as part of the problem, and be more attuned to the solutions their rep is bringing to the district. Politicians are adept in exploiting this phenomenon for elections, playing into a conspiratorial us vs. them. A representative can connect with their constituents by playing off of widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, claiming he or she is a reformer who will clean up Congress's act. In today's divided political discourse, we're led to believe that Congress is run by the Other People, but our representative has our best interests at heart. And we fall for it, every time.