Power has devolved to the people. And the people hate it. In his book “Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics,” Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina considers this “the great irony” of American politics: that the more Americans participate in their political system, the angrier and more disillusioned they become. We have met the enemy, and it is us. Or at least some of us.
American politics is vastly more open to the masses than it was a few generations ago. Party nominees are chosen by voters in primaries rather than by party leaders in backrooms. C-SPAN cameras unflinchingly record committee hearings. Polling gives politicians detailed information about the preferences of constituents. Voice votes have fallen in favor of roll calls, permitting voters to see how their representatives stand on almost every bill and amendment. The explosion of online media has given political junkies access to more and better political news. Countless activist groups have emerged to channel the passions and frustrations of Americans into sophisticated, effective political action.
Yet according to Fiorina’s data, turnout in elections has fallen and faith in government has plummeted.
“Against all natural expectations,” he wrote, “Americans liked their government better, trusted their leaders more, and voted in higher numbers in the bad old days when party bosses chose nominees in smoke-filled rooms; when several dozen old white men (mostly Southerners) ran Congress, when big business, big labor and big agriculture dominated the interest group universe; and when politicians didn’t have the tools to figure out what their constituents wanted. Why?”
Last week, Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, announced that she will retire. Her exit from Congress is a good moment to consider Fiorina’s question because her career, perhaps more than any other, is a product of, and a tribune for, the “disconnect” he identifies.
Let’s begin with an example slightly less extreme than Bachmann: You. If you are reading this column, you are very weird. You’re spending spare time considering arguments about American politics, which most people don’t bother to do.
Politics is a niche hobby, not unlike mountain biking or playing the oboe. Only a small number actually follow the proliferation of political news; few send e-mails to members of Congress or volunteer for campaigns. So the opening of U.S. politics, Fiorina wrote, “had a perverse consequence: political power and influence were transferred to political activists who were not like most people.”
Bachmann was one of those activists. She became a pro-life advocate after watching Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 documentary, “How Should We Then Live?” She spent years holding sidewalk demonstrations outside clinics that performed abortions. In 1993, she began a charter school that was supposed to be nonsectarian but soon exhibited a clearly Christian perspective. The school almost lost its charter, and Bachmann was forced to leave its board. That led her to begin fighting the state’s educational standards, which put her on the path to elected office.
Bachmann wasn’t chosen by party bosses looking to win the middle of the electorate. Rather, she emerged through an organic, grass-roots process driven by committed political activists looking to change the country. She won Republican primaries decided by a sliver of her district’s voters. She owed her general-election victories to the votes of a small minority. She gained notoriety by speaking to partisans nationwide. She amassed a huge fundraising advantage over potential comers by raking in out-of-state donations. She built her career, in other words, on her intense appeal to a politically active fraction of the electorate even as she represented everybody in Minnesota’s 6th District. She leveraged the political activity of the ideological few against the relative apathy of the more moderate many.
None of this is wrong. Indeed, most of it is admirable. Bachmann cares about her country and organized with like-minded citizens to improve it. This is what political activists on both left and right do, and much of what is best in America — the civil rights movement, for example — is the result of such efforts.
Like other political activists, Bachmann is a true believer. At another time, a local party machine might have dismissed her electoral ambitions, judging her too extreme for the district. The opening of politics has given true believers an opportunity to seize party and political machinery on both sides of the aisle. The result, Fiorina says, is a politics in which representatives are far more extreme and partisan than the people they represent.
Fiorina’s argument isn’t universally accepted. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, says Fiorina underestimates how much the voters, too, have grown polarized. David Broockman, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, has conducted research suggesting the decisive factor isn’t so much extremism as partisanship.
Analyzing opinion surveys, he found that voters are more likely to endorse “extreme” policy measures than political leaders are, perhaps because leaders have internalized the boundaries of the politically possible. Meanwhile, leaders are more likely to hold positions that are wholly consistent with one party or the other’s agenda.
“In D.C., if you give me a given member of Congress and tell me where they stand on gay marriage, I can guess where they stand on almost everything,” Broockman said. “If you give me a member of the public and tell me where they stand on gay marriage, I can do a bit better than chance in guessing what else they believe, but not that much better than chance.”
Few doubt Fiorina’s broad point that a more open political system has further polarized politics and frustrated the public. The more closed system of yesteryear was problematic in a thousand ways, but the system’s gatekeepers played an underappreciated role in moderating U.S. politics. In their absence, activists have streamed in, and the public has grown more and more disgusted. Bachmann may be retiring, but other activists are running and winning. The door is open.