Hard to blame a voter faced with lack of palatable candidates
Congress has willingly ceded its constitutional mandate to the executive and judicial branches of government. The branch closest to the people no longer works for the people because the people no longer hold their legislative representatives accountable. However, it is difficult to blame a voter, who faced with a lack of palatable candidates, casts their ballot for the “lesser of two evils.” The two major political parties benefit from this arrangement and consequently make it more difficult for independent and third party candidates to access ballots and appeal to voters.
America is $21 trillion in debt, our infrastructure is third-rate compared to the amount of money we have spent, health care and prescription drug costs continue to rise, wages are stagnant, the mental health system is broken and largely ignored, and the list goes on and on.
None of these issues, regardless of which party holds the majority, have been debated or seriously considered by Congress. In spite of that, Americans continue to re-elect the same representatives at alarming rates.
To listen to the average American, you would think that the executive agencies are the branch of government tasked with making law and that social policy is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts. This delegation of legislative power is not what the founders intended, but it has become a practical reality of our modern politics. This explains the modern trend of presidents increasingly acting through executive orders and why both political parties prioritize packing the nation’s federal courts with ideologically comparable appointees.
Members of Congress are grateful to leave the actual governing to the executive agencies, the courts and the bureaucrats because it allows them to escape responsibility for having to make tough policy decisions. Talking points, sound bites and spin saturate our public discourse.
Approval ratings for Congress as a whole have remained at or about 20 percent for several years. Nevertheless, members of Congress are re-elected at levels that old Soviet Bloc dictators would envy. Rather than direct their anger and frustration at Congress, voters seem content to let the branch with the most power over their lives shirk their responsibility and instead direct their fury at whoever holds the presidency.
Voters from both political parties are guilty of this. Congress plays into this misdirected anger and concurrently benefits from it substantially. The more upset someone is at the president, the less focused they are on their congressional representatives. Therefore, the voters never realize how little Congress accomplishes or cares about their input on policy.
A 2014 study by professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University found that ”[t]he preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
Political party leaders in the House and Senate have only made the problems worse. Congressional leadership controls committee assignments, schedules votes, decides points of order and oversees debates. This same leadership also holds the purse strings to millions of dollars in campaign contributions that they alone can bring to bear in close congressional races. It is the fear that the leadership
can do something for you or to you is why ordinary members of Congress rarely, if ever, step out of line with their party’s leadership.
The need for independents and third parties is as critical now as it has ever been. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans hold that they would prefer having a third party in the political system because the two major parties do not adequately represent the American people. Furthermore, according to the latest totals, a quarter of registered voters in West Virginia are not affiliated with the two major political parties. However, these numbers rarely, if ever, translate into actual success for independent and third party candidates. This lack of success is due in large part to the belief that candidates outside of the Democratic and Republican parties are nothing more than spoilers or vote-splitters. Based on the number of people who would like to see more independents and third parties on the ballot and the number of not registered with one of the two major parties, this kind of reasoning is circular.
If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, then the most effective way to hold local, state and national representatives accountable is not to stay home but, instead, vote for independent and third party candidates, or better yet, run as a third party candidate. Voting outside of the two-party system is the only way to force representatives to act and act in the best interest of their constituency. What is occurring today is a dereliction of duty. There are far too many problems not being addressed by those whose sole job is to make tough decisions on our behalf and in our best interest.
By not voting you make it easier for the ineffective but well-known politician to win with fewer and fewer votes every election when those who want change are frustrated with their options and instead stay home. What currently occurs each and every election is a half of a half of the electorate selecting representatives for the whole because far too many people stay home. Moreover, we consider this “high” voter turnout.
Something has to change. That change begins with voters holding representatives accountable. The best way to achieve that is to vote outside of the two-party system. The Democrats and Republicans seem more content to bicker than govern. That is true on both the national and state level. It is time we elect representatives who will govern and govern independently of special interest and partisan fidelity and who care more about doing something than being something.
Nigel E. Jeffries is an attorney in Charleston.