How the Reelection Process is the Source of Political Polarization in Congress

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A Look at the Motivations of Congress Members on a More Personal Level

One of the accepted threats to the public in a representative democracy is the potential loss of agency due to the risk that politicians will put their own interests before the desires of the American people. While this risk has been minimized in the past, this problem has magnified in the current political arena. The looming threat of losing reelection has become a constant focus for politicians and caused a decrease in voting agency for current members of Congress due to the perceived need for members to vote along party lines in order to demonstrate their support for their party. Thus, this increased dependency of Congress members on party leadership to dictate individual voting stances is one of the main sources of polarization in the American political climate.

As suggested by David Mayhew in the 1974 book The Electoral Connection, Congress members “are single-minded seekers of reelection.” In order to maximize their political utility in terms of policy-making, they must put their efforts into getting reelected. These tactics detract from effective policy-making because they shift the focus from issues to candidates. One of the tactics used is advertising, when a member of Congress works to improve their public image by making personal statements about their experience and sincerity, but are usually independent of current issues. Another tactic used is credit claiming, where politicians attempt to convince their constituents that they were personally responsible for a certain action taken by the government. The least used tactic in politics today is position taking. This tactic is the most useful in reducing the ambiguity of candidates’ agendas. However, it is least used due to its risky nature. Politicians do not like to enunciate their views on issues publicly due to the potential backlash from dissenting constituents or current party members. This uncertainty to take sides on divisive issues augments the process of polarization.

Most politicians focused on reelection also want to vote along party lines in order to get party support for upcoming elections, and this also increases polarity. Nowadays, this preoccupation with maintaining seats has caused party members to become internally homogenous, and has caused the gap between Democrats and Republicans to widen. The need to stay loyal to a party in order to win reelection causes a decrease in voter agency for Congress members, and ultimately diminishes political efficiency in our legislative system. A side effect of this shift to internally homogenous parties and increased party loyalty is that more power is given to party leaders in Congress. This decreasing overlap and diversification of party members’ views, and the increasing power of party leaders, causes parties to become more polarized.

The focus on personal reelections undermines the political process in terms of how the founding fathers viewed American politics. When the Constitution was created, the founding fathers wished to create a political process, which created slow and deliberate changes, where personal ambitions offset each other and minority interests are protected despite the first-past-post elections system. Their intent was to find a balance between a dynamic and virtually unchangeable political system; the current leadership-dominated system promotes discourse but often fails to reach compromises which encompass both parties’ views, which leads to a loss of political efficacy and a decreased health of civil society.

While an eternal optimist may hope those in office can overcome their egos in order to create effective legislation, the current Congress seems to be delving into an even more polarized political landscape. The 113th Congress is on track for being more unproductive than the 112th Congress, which was deemed the least productive Congress in American history. Until members of Congress learn to put aside their reelection fears and enunciate their views unequivocally, the American public will be subject to a polarized political climate.

[Image Credit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/files/2013/01/wonk0104.jpg]

About author

Poulumi Banerjee

Poulumi is a senior from Charlotte, NC double majoring in Economics and English. Due to her experience in investment banking, Poulumi's focus is in the political economy, specifically understanding how economic forces shape and propel political movements, and how fiscal policy and market trends in the public and private sectors influence political agendas. Her main areas of interest include economic inequality, campaign financing laws, and the current shift in American politics from liberal capitalism to right-wing populism.

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