Dysfunction in Raleigh and D.C. Whom Do They ‘Represent’?
On the heels of an extremely contentious debate about raising the amount of debt the federal government can take on, congressional approval is at an all-time low.
A recent CNN poll found Congress with a 14 percent approval rating among Americans, the lowest ever in the news organization’s polling.
“Seventy-seven percent of respondents said elected officials who have dealt with the debt ceiling have acted like spoiled children,” CNN reported. “Just 17 percent believe the politicians have acted like responsible adults.”
With more than eight out of 10 citizens unhappy with their leaders in Washington, one would expect mass turnover come the next election. But in reality, at least 80 percent of incumbents will likely remain in office after the 2012 election.
There are several reasons for this patently absurd result. First among them is the practice of gerrymandering. Every 10 years, following the census, political maps must be redrawn to accommodate shifts in population.
It doesn’t matter which political party is in control at the time. Their own political mission is to draw maps with as many “safe” seats as possible for their party.
Redistricting just happened here in North Carolina, and the outcomes of the races to fill our congressional delegation are practically preordained in 10 out of the 13 districts — more than a year before ballots have been cast.
With competition limited, ensuring that most incumbents remain in power, decision-making in Congress isn’t about deliberation anymore. Gone are the days of measured debate and thoughtful compromise.
With so many politicians coming from gerrymandered districts where the only voters who really matter are the hard-charging partisans, the incentive to move discourse to the center or to be concerned with average voters is almost completely gone.
It’s no wonder so many of us disapprove of Congress.
Sadly, North Carolina is not immune to these political trends. Thanks to gerrymandered N.C. House and N.C. Senate districts and the huge campaign finance advantage incumbents enjoy, Raleigh is fast becoming a partisan swamp no different than Washington, D.C. In this last session of the General Assembly, the debate over our state budget looked remarkably similar to the debt-ceiling debate in Congress.
What we heard out of both capitals were rhetorical bombs, an “us-versus-them” mentality and a “win-at-all-costs” attitude.
Lost in this partisan wrestling is the notion that we send our political leaders to represent the broad will of the people, not the narrow interests of a political party or a gerrymandered district.
If we want to get back to a place where at least a majority of us can say we approve of the job our elected officials are doing, we are going to need to do a lot of work. Fundamentally the foundation of our democracy is strong, but over the years we have let distortions to our system creep in.
While we must be concerned about things like budgets and health care, we need to be just as concerned about the inner workings of our government — the basic civics we learned in grade school — and how they play out in a real-world context. Things like campaign finance and redistricting reform need to take center stage.
These policy debates aren’t “kitchen-table issues,” and getting our elected officials focused on them is no easy task. But unless we do, 80 percent of us will continue to deplore our elected officials and 80 percent of our elected officials just won’t care.
Damon Circosta is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization.
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