Why Politics Is Harder Than It Looks

Americans often want their representatives to do contradictory things.

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio part ways following a St. Patrick's Day luncheon Friday, March 14, 2014, in Washington, D.C. They are flanked by House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, left, and Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer.

Americans want their lawmakers to do go in many directions at once.

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We like to think we’re reasonable. We like to think that our political preferences are shared widely by other Americans. We like to believe that the problems in Washington, like the misdeeds done in Las Vegas, originate and remain inside the Beltway.

But understanding our politics means facing the fact that holding together close to 320 million people from coast to coast is no easy task. And it’s not simply America's population size or geographical expanse. It's more that our deeply democratic political culture resists claims of authority and encourages individual empowerment and vocal expression. In sum, we’re loud and proud, stubborn and skeptical. And this is what makes representing — forget about leading — the multiplicity of viewpoints in America nearly impossible.

The myriad contradictions in public opinion were on full display in two recently released polls. The first, done for USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center, showed that while a large majority of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing (77 percent), few agree on what individual members should do. When given the choice between having a member vote their conscience or vote the way the people they represent want, 80 percent said that members of Congress should vote the way the people they represent want. Another two-thirds (67 percent) went on to say that members should work across party lines.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Of course, members can’t really do both things when one realizes how few “swing” districts exist in the country. As Charlie Cook noted in National Journal last year, about “96 percent of Democratic House members [are] representing districts carried by President Obama and 94 percent of Republican House lawmakers [are] representing districts won by Mitt Romney.” In other words, how can members vote the way the people they represent want (mostly people clearly on one side of the aisle or the other) and work across party lines?

Beyond this, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans also would like members to spend more time at home in their districts. But how exactly are members supposed to work across the aisle with other members of Congress if they are all at home in their districts?

The latest George Washington University Battleground poll, meanwhile, showed that while most Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing (82 percent), a plurality approve of the job their individual member of Congress is doing (46 percent).

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

More interesting, when partisans were asked if they were pleased with the direction that their party was going in, 51 percent said yes and 42 percent said no. Further, among those who were displeased, there was no consensus about which ideological direction (more conservative, more moderate or more liberal) their parties should pursue. Looking at the crosstabs, the displeasure is more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans are displeased with the direction of their party, whereas only 26 percent of Democrats are displeased. Oddly enough, however, those Republicans who are displeased are also more unified in the direction they would prefer their party to move (53 percent said more conservative), than those Democrats who are displeased (20 percent said more conservative, 42 percent said more moderate, and 30 percent said more liberal).

In addition to revealing the fragility of each party coalition, this question raises some other intriguing aspects of American politics. For instance, despite the fact that unemployment among young people is much higher than the national average, more young voters (those age 18 to 29) are pleased with their party’s direction (56 percent) than older voters (among those age 30 to 44, only 48 percent are pleased and among those 45 and older, 51 percent are pleased). And regardless of both parties’ attempts to court middle-class voters, oddly enough, more of the middle class (52 percent) are pleased with the direction their party is going in than voters in the upper class (38 percent).

What all these findings come down to is that Americans are a tough bunch to please — even when things are going our way (i.e., upper-class voters have financially done much better over the last decade than either middle- or lower-class voters). And as much as you may disparage the politics in Washington, try not to forget that it’s much harder than it looks.