How Incumbents Control Their Own Reelections

The methods incumbents use to gain too much control over their own reelections are simple, predictable and in plain sight to anyone who cares to look. Let us begin such a look by introducing two simple terms: voter control and incumbent control. If de facto control over incumbents’ reelections (de jure control is not the issue here) is primarily in the hands of the voters, we can say the democracy is voter-controlled (i.e., the democratic link is strong). If this control is primarily in the hands of the incumbents, we of course can say the democracy is incumbent-controlled (the democratic link is weak). An important logical implication of all this is that if you as an average voter live in a democracy suffering under longtime incumbent control, you should have no doubt your political system feels no real pressure to serve you or anyone like you.

As an example of incumbent control in action, let us examine the illustrations below. You will see that the voters may disapprove of the collective performance of Congress however strongly they wish, but their disapproval has no discernible impact on the incumbent class’s ability to reelect itself year in and out.

We will soon shine a light on how it is this disconnect is created, but for the issue at hand it matters not. Congress’s 535 Members are collectively tasked with running the legislative branch of the federal government to the voters’ collective satisfaction. The voters are almost always deeply dissatisfied with this collective performance, yet all but a few incumbents are reelected nearly every cycle anyway. For those in leadership positions – which is to say for those most responsible for our bad, horrible, terrible government – the re-election rates are nearly one-hundred percent. This is a textbook example of incumbent control as it is meant to be understood in this writing.

Legislative incumbents at all three levels of government, over many decades and with many assists from the executive and judicial branches, have turned The People’s House and the Senate into The Rulers’ Reelection Factories. With corporate efficiency, they crank out reelections for nearly all incumbents, almost wholly independent of popular satisfaction with their collective performance. 

Using the federal legislature as an example to illustrate how these “factories” work in concrete terms, Congressional incumbents have built for themselves an election system in which:

  1. Fantastic sums of money are nearly always required simply to play the game.
  2. Raising such sums is a breeze for incumbents, since they ceaselessly shake down moneyed interests by forever writing new laws and regulations designed to hurt those who do not pay and to help, or at least not hurt, those who do. Enormous quantities of both party and outside money multiply the size and strength of these ill-gotten war chests.
  3. Raising these sums is well-nigh impossible for the vast majority of citizens. Even when possible, it requires making so many promises to so many different interest groups that candidates are no longer free in any real sense to campaign or govern on what they truly think is right and necessary for society. Add to these the additional fact that the very act of begging others for money while selling your public-servant soul in the process is terrifically degrading for anyone with a meaningful capacity for shame. The final result is that a number not substantially different from zero of society’s best, brightest and most honorable citizens – precisely the ones whose energetic participation in the system any democracy needs most – are quite understandably not even willing to try and participate in such a sordid affair.
  4. The vast majority of the nation’s 435 congressional districts are gerrymandered enough so that one party or the other is dominant in all of them so constructed.[1]As for elections to the Senate, the electorates of most states have a partisan skew as if they too had been gerrymandered.
  5. The non-stop and nakedly partisan demagoguery, campaigning and policymaking have so thoroughly polarized the electorate along effectively partisan lines that most states and the aforementioned gerrymandered districts vote on an almost purely partisan basis. However wantonly Congress governs to serve a very few and disserve the very many, the incumbents come running back to their states or districts at election time, rail against Congress with faux indignation and swear they are just the ones to go up, down or over to Washington and raise all kinds of hell.It is one of several elements of a tried-and-true divide-and-conquer operationin legislatures everywhere.

The operation conquers a national electorate substantially unified against the legislators as a whole by dividing it into as many discrete pieces as there are incumbents running for reelection and inundating the voters of each with a thoroughly fictitious depiction of reality, custom designed for maximal exploitation of the vulnerabilities of that one slice of the electorate at that one moment in time. As part and parcel of this exploitation, ridiculous sums are spent painting opponents and the party they belong to as veritable spawns of Satan minus only the horns, tails and Satan’s bubbly personality.

The polarization along partisan lines plus the mega-dollar slander campaigns plus the divide and conquer operation combine in elections everywhere to generate an essentially party-line vote. In the gerrymandered districts and in all but the most purple of states, this party-line vote is all that is needed to deliver incumbent reelections with a nearly mathematical certainty.

Both parties know it works this way, and both are content to leave nearly half the seats in unchallengeable control of the other. They duke it all out over a smattering of swing seats, knowing that no matter what, 90% or more of both parties’ incumbents[2]– and probably 100% of committee chairs and leadership–will successfully be reelected. The voters will have to take it and like it. Or take it and not like it. Either way they will take it, so what does it matter to the legion of safely seated incumbents?

  • The entire process of governing and campaigning has become so vicious, dirty and destructive of reputations that good and talented people – the sort who might actually be inclined to make good-faith attempts to govern honestly, honorably and in service to the many – have every incentive to stay miles away from such a pigsty of a playing field. The meaner, dirtier and costlier the incumbents make the process of running for office, the lower the number and the quality of competitors they face. It is a perverse phenomenon in a democracy if ever there was one, and just another reminder of the severity of this “input problem” we introduced all the way back at the beginning.

All the above is but a sampling of the general class of events that are certain to occur when incumbents are given the space to steal from the voters too much power to decide their own reelections. The sundry ways this incumbent control affects the making of policy is a whole other parade of horrors, and the downstream effects of the policies so produced, yet another.

[1]State legislatures do the gerrymandering (redistricting), but its effects operate on the federal level.

[2]80% or more in the Senate.

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