Politicians: More Staying Power than Cockroaches
Common Sense – Chapter 4; Part 2
Politicians, like cockroaches, are not stupid creatures. Both have an uncanny ability to survive, consume all things living or dead, and can apparently live up to one month without their head—though I would argue that politicians can survive much longer than that.
How is it possible that a Congress with an overall approval rating of 13% saw 95% of its incumbent representatives win reelection along with 88% of its incumbent senators? Common sense tells us those two things cannot possibly go together—yet it happened. Why? Because veteran politicians have written the rules to favor themselves and the two mainstream political parties.
In the 2008 general election, the average incumbent House member raised an average of $1,356,311. The challengers raised an average of $336,585. Incumbent senators fared even better, raking in an average of $8,804,631, while their lowly challengers averaged 87% less, or $1,155,599.
No matter how great your message is, it’s hard to win an election when you can’t afford to get it out there—which is why campaign finance laws have helped the parties become so entrenched. But it’s not the only reason for their dominance—there’s also redistricting, otherwise known as “gerrymandering.” Americans want elections that are open and fair, but the gerrymander is designed to make sure that doesn’t happen. How? It’s simple: by artificially carving out election districts that favor a particular incumbent or political party. That politician and party then have a much better chance of staying in power.
Politicians can actually decide which neighborhoods, races, religions, and income levels they want in their district. They can even decide which side of a street to draw the line down. In short, they get to choose exactly who lives in their district—which begs the question: Are we choosing our representatives or are they choosing who gets to vote for them?
The dark gray areas on this image show Illinois Democratic representative Luis Gutierrez’s 4th Congressional District. Gutierrez has been serving since 1993 and his district is thirty-nine square miles—look at this and tell me if common sense is still alive in Washington.
Below is California Democratic representative Grace Napolitano’s 38th Congressional District. It covers 105 square miles. Was this district drawn to benefit the citizens who live there, or a particular political party?
Arizona Republican representative Trent Frank’s 2nd Congressional District is shown below. It covers 20,391 square miles, which makes it larger than Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Delaware combined! It’s not the distance that’s shocking, but how the district’s drawn.
Your voice is diluted when congressional districts are drawn to favor specific politicians or parties. We all want to believe that we can make a difference, that our vote matters—but that’s simply not the truth in a growing number of places.
Defenders of these gerrymandered districts would argue that they are lumping people with similar concerns and circumstances together, but isn’t that exactly the problem?
Gerrymandering isn’t limited to these three districts, and it’s used by both parties to create and protect “safe seats.” Our Founding Fathers didn’t want any politician’s job to ever be safe or secure; they wanted our representatives to fear the people.
Gerrymandering has another downside as well. By cutting-and-pasting their districts together from large geographic areas, politicians have divided our neighborhoods and destroyed our sense of community. Most likely you are completely oblivious to the boundaries of your congressional district and have no idea if the neighbor across the street from you is represented by the same person. And that’s exactly how they want it. By blurring the lines, established politicians can prevent like-minded people from getting together to mount a challenge to them. After all, it’s hard to organize a rally when you don’t even know what doors to knock on.
Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of bringing communities together in the political process. He proposed creating political divisions called “wards” so that neighbors with similar interests, concerns, and needs could meet and discuss them and then approach their political leaders with a predetermined consensus. As Jefferson put it, “Divide the counties into wards of such size… that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively.” Political divisions that were too large would result in having the “voice” of the people “imperfectly or falsely pronounced.”
The simplicity and wisdom of Jefferson’s plan is reflected in the layout of many state, which were divided into symmetrical townships of six square miles. Rather than closely mirror that layout, today’s politicians have discarded natural boundaries and communal affiliations in favor of Frankensteinian maps that have no foundation in any kind of logic.
Money and gerrymandering remain the key obstacles to “throwing the bums out” and why many members of Congress have served longer than kinds and dictators with lifetime appointments. For instance, Senator Robert Byrd has been in that office for more than half a century and Representative John Dingell has been a member of Congress for fifty-three years. Henry VIII of England only served thirty-eight years. Dictators Stalin and Lenin only eked out twenty-nine and seven years, respectively. Byrd has even served longer than Fidel Castro, who called it quits after forty-nine years!
American politics was designed to push candidates into the political center and away from the outer extremes. Our “winner-take-all” approach was meant to compel candidates to move to the middle in order to pick up the most political support possible. Under normal circumstances, that would also be why our two major parties are so similar to each other—they’re both competing for the same block of voters. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Instead of competing in the center, our political parties are competing on the fringe. That’s not where the voters are, but that’s where the voters who matter are. Since gerrymandering allows politicians to basically handpick their constituencies, campaigns really only need to be focused on swaying those people.
Our system wasn’t designed to operate that way. After George Washington’s first two terms, Americans begged him to continue his service, but he refused, believing it would set a bad precedent. Jefferson, citing Washington’s example, also refused to serve a third term, noting that “history shows how easily [long-term public service] degenerates into an inheritance.”
Of course, FDR didn’t care about Washington’s or Jefferson’s concerns. He stayed in for four terms—a reign that went so well that we followed it up by ratifying the 22nd Amendment, ensuring that it would never happen again. Today our latest political royalty, the Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons, would never think of getting out of “the family business” for the good of the country (and don’t them kid you—“family business” is exactly what it is).
We are at a crossroads. The power of the president may be limited, but the power of those entrenched as the “political elite” in Washington is out of control. That is why it is now time to do something that our politicians are quite familiar with: we have to change the rules of the game.
Instituting term limits on all public servants is the only way to limit the damage that can be caused by those who lack the character needed to assume such a role. Ben Franklin insisted that service to your country not be a full-time job or career—and he was exactly right. Our public servants must be sent back into private life without the obscene perks they’re used to.
Will term limits result in good politicians being thrown out of office too early, the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Absolutely—but that’s a small price to pay for the freedom this will grant us. Freedom from corruption, greed, arrogance, and, most of all, freedom from those who put their careers above their country.
Our part in this is simple: You must seek out and support those candidates who strongly support serious term limits. Any candidate who campaigns on the idea that their job is a temporary one is a candidate worth looking closely at. We must also elevate the question of term limits to the same stature as global warming, immigration, taxes, or any of the other issues that will no longer matter if we lose our Republic.