Welcome to the world of the eternal campaign.
Even as the Trump White House wrapped up its first 100 days, Democrats scoured their ranks for viable congressional candidates. Republicans, worried about losing their majority, girded themselves for campaign battles across the map in 2018. But regardless of who claims a congressional majority during the midterms, they will face a public wary of their motivations and competency.
It’s hard to imagine fighting so hard for a job where only about one-in-five Americans approve of the results they see from the halls where they yearn to sit.
We have reasons for our distrust. Congress seems more intent on partisanship and on campaigning than they are on acting as public servants. They advocate for a different health care system for the rest of us than they do for themselves. They fail to stick to campaign finance reform and they protect their own version of insider trading.
All of this plays a role in our distrust. But there’s a deeper core issue at play.
There are the more obvious realities, like the fact that a majority of Congress is made up of millionaires. But the deeper we dig, the more we realize they don’t look or live much like us at all.
There are a couple of ways to look at this issue. Sources like the Pew Research Center and The Hill tout that our current Congress is the most racially diverse in history, and that’s a good thing. But tin spite of that progress, the current legislators are 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and nearly 90 percent Christian.
And yet they hit the campaign trails and offer sound bytes to argue that they’re “one of us,” that they really get what we’re going through.
A few of us, yes. But most of us have no real representation in the legislature from others who know much about how we live or who we are, let alone who come from a similar experience.
What would our representatives in Congress look like if they truly reflected America? Here's a snapshot.
- 240 of them would have a family adjusted gross income of $30,000 or lower. (Right now their congressional salaries alone are $175,000 each.)
- 68 would live in poverty, and only 18 would be millionaires. (Right now none of them live in poverty and at least 271 have a net worth of at least $1 million.)
- 22 would identify as LGBTQ. (Right now only 7 openly claim to be.)
- 158 would identify with a religion other than Christian, or would identify with no religion at all.
- 272 would be women.
There are ideological disconnects, too. While 97 percent of Americans believe in global warming and 95 percent of Americans believe in human contribution to global warming, 53 percent of Congress is made up of climate-change deniers.
And while we're clearly united on some issues, Americans on the whole also tend to be more nuanced in our views about gun control and abortion than many of our representatives claim to be.
In fact, therein lies a fundamental flaw in our legislative (some might argue our entire political) system. Most of us have somewhat layered, nuanced, or even fluid thinking on a number of complex issues. But far too often we’re presented with one stringent view held by one major political party, while the other major party embraces the polar opposite, and we're left to decide which is less wrong.
While this sort of debate and decision-making process is more streamlined and easy to understand, it hardly reflects reality.
So maybe the more reasonable question is: If our representatives in Congress don’t look, live, or think like us, why in the world should we trust them?
Well, though we’d like to think we care deeply about issues and voting records, psychologists remind us that we’re not as rational as we think, and that our voting is more emotionally motivated than we realize, here and abroad. That’s why public opinion and voting metrics can be swayed so powerfully by ads and sound clips, regardless of whether they’re used out of context. (As much as we say we hate negative campaign ads, they work.)
Generating enough ad exposure to move an election costs money, and as the old saying goes, "Money attracts money." Social circles are built around affluence and influence, and we tend to support those we know. So rich people know lots of other rich people, who can support their campaigns, which often cost into the ten of millions of dollars.
And the legal-in-word-but-extremely-questionable-ethically-in-execution practice of gerrymandering (that is, reorganizing election precincts, which tend to be controlled by the party in power) more deeply entrenches existing ideological silos nationally — further resisting any real, substantive change on the Hill, despite the pledges to the contrary.
But nothing is more powerful than a populace made up of rigorously-informed voters. It takes time, energy, and a willingness to go beyond our typical comfort zones to consider multiple sides of important issues. Right now, we allow ourselves to be swayed by the “same old, same old.”
We all know we need to work better as a nation. But in order to get it, we have to do better in the voting booth.