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The Tragedy of the Commons Writ Large in Congress

The Tragedy of the Commons Writ Large in Congress

Pundits' and news commentators' fixation on who is going to win control of the House and Senate in the midterm election is a secondary issue to many Americans, who are more concerned with what is going to happen to their government after the election. Pundits should be estimating the probabilities that the institution of Congress, as a whole, is going to be fixed, regardless of who wins control.

That's because the American government is in a crisis. Americans are now as negative about the way their representative democratic system is working as at any time in polling history. Confidence in Congress as an institution is at 7%, the lowest measurement in history and lower than any other institution tested, including organized labor, banks and big business. Views of the honesty and ethics of members of Congress are at 8% on average, one percentage point above lobbyists, but one point below car salesmen. Fifty-nine percent of Americans have a negative image of the federal government, while 22% have a positive image -- putting the federal government dead-last on a list of 25 business and industry sectors tested. Supermajorities of Americans say that most members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents and are too beholden to special interests. More than half of Americans say most members of Congress are corrupt. Fixing dysfunctional government now percolates up below only the economy as the issue most important to Americans' votes. Dysfunctional government is near the top of Gallup's monthly most important problem list.

Americans tell us that this disdain for the men and women elected to represent them in Washington is based on these representatives' inability to cooperate, guide the government into efficient and effective operations, and to work together in the interests of their constituents. It would seem to follow that Americans would demand and look for challengers to incumbents who would promise to do these things. But, the huge majority of incumbents running for re-election have been re-elected in the past and will be re-elected this year.

This is Fenno's Paradox -- the fact that people don't like Congress as a whole, but like their individual representative. There's attitudinal as well as voting evidence for this. Voters are much more positive about the idea of their member of Congress being re-elected than they are when asked about most members of Congress. While approval for Congress as a body is at 20% or lower, Americans' average approval of the representative from their district is at 55%.

Many voters congressional representatives are friendly, serve the district's needs, and are recognizable. Many voters rely on the simple cue of partisanship and vote for candidates with whom they share party identification. Voters may also feel that whoever they send to Washington as their representative has a small chance of affecting the way the overall system works. Many Americans just don't vote. This, in turn, leaves the representatives under the control of the power of the niches or subgroups of voters who do vote, and these people often have highly specific agendas that don't include fixing the institution as a whole. As a result, the body doesn't change.

All of this harkens to the famous "tragedy of the commons," in which individuals or small groups make perfectly rational individual decisions that pool together to cause overall tragedy. Individual cow owners make a rational decision to let their cow graze on a commonly-held commons, only to find that when many cow owners make the same rational decision, the land is degraded, grazed over and no one can graze henceforth.

The solution? Elected representatives could change their behavior and begin to act in ways that fit better with the overall desires of the American population taken as a whole -- compromise, meaningful debate on what the role of the government should or should not be in addressing the key problems of our era, and deliberate decision-making in line with the wishes and desires of the public. There is, however, no evidence that this type of change is imminent.

Americans themselves could cease responding to short-term reinforcements when they vote for Congress and concentrate instead on the bigger or longer-term picture. This would depend on having alternative candidates with the courage to focus on the big picture. This, too, does not appear imminent.

What's needed is a major disruption in business as usual in both the voters' and the representatives' behavior. These types of disruptions don't percolate up spontaneously in many situations, but require leaders, charisma, organization and a lot of hard work.

The Tea Party provides an example -- a focused social movement intent on shifting voting choices and voting decisions out of the partisan business-as-usual cycle, providing a broader, big picture structure -- and candidates -- to guide voting. The Tea Party's underlying purpose or objective was, however, not in sync with the majority of public opinion. The Tea Party focused on changing Congress by electing candidates who, in many ways, represented the opposite of what the majority of the public wants -- a lack of cooperation, sticking to a set of ideological principles at the cost of getting things done, disrupting the effectiveness of Congress, and in general focused on a high level of allegiance to certain, rigid focus points, regardless of consequences.

The type of movement that could help shift American voting at the individual level in ways that more closely matched overall, broad public opinion would be something like a "Congressional Reform Party," focusing on developing a better functioning group of representatives who meet, debate, reach compromise and operate in an efficient manner. Such a movement would address management, efficiency, the ability to compromise and work together, competence over ideology -- enlisting candidates and voters whose primary focus is the effective, efficient, collegial, goals-oriented management of the business of Congress and hence government.

There is no sign of a Congressional Reform Party movement on the horizon at this point. But, a propitious environment for something like it may already be in place. Americans tell us that, in principle, the No. 1 way to fix Congress is to fire all current members and bring new members in. So far, voters have not figured out a way to accomplish this on their own, and dutifully each year re-elect most incumbents who want to return to office. But it is possible that the voters could be persuaded to shift and look at their individual actions more carefully as a piece of the broader puzzle. It may be that individual voters will come to recognize the consequences of their narrow voting decisions based mainly on local self-interest and will begin to see their voting decisions as a factor in the broad whole. A mobilizing force is most likely going to be needed to facilitate this recognition and movement.

All in all, without some sort of major change mechanism, it is likely to be business as usual in Washington when the dust settles after this election. And at this point, that business as usual is heading the U.S. into a crisis of confidence in the very institutions that are the backbone of our form of government.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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