Apathetic Politics

Since Gallup began polling on the question “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?”, a majority of Americans have said “approve” a mere 22 out of 318 times polled. That number is under 7%, and the last time was April of 2003.[1]

Political parties don’t fare much better. According to a recent CNN poll, only 37% of Americans currently approve of the Democratic party, while 30% approve of the Republican party. [2]

President Donald Trump holds an aggregated 42.3% approval rating, down from its highest point of 47.8% just days after his inauguration.[3]

Our country is not simply divided by political parties: it’s had enough of them.

 

In his farewell address, George Washington warned us of the dangers of political parties:

“They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force;”

Political parties divide us, argues Washington,

“to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community;”

Politicians put party before country, he suggests,

“and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”[4]

Pay close attention to that last sentence. Washington is drawing an image of how government should function. He asks us to imagine a single branch of Congress as an organ, and our entire government as a human body, carrying out the “mutual interests” of the country. Unfortunately, as many of us would agree, such is not the reality.

Our past 10 Congresses have passed only 66% as many laws as the previous 10 sessions.[5] Many Americans can remember the recent, drawn-out fights over everything from healthcare to budgets, in addition to the consequences of deadlock, such as the 2013 and 2018 government shutdowns. With such a frustratingly inefficient federal government on our hands, why do we refuse to change the system?

Photo courtesy of The Washington Examiner

 

The answer is complex. Despite Americans’ lack of faith in their recent leadership, there still seems to be an aversion to anything that deviates from our current system. Only 3 third-party candidates have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, 7 to the Senate, and none to the Presidency since 1971. What gives?

A large part of the answer has to do with gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district lines to favor political parties and candidates. But another factor that drives America’s political stalemate is that we have decided to settle for our two-party system.

Think back to conversations had around election-time. It seems as though any time the notion of supporting a third party is suggested, it is met with accusations from both sides of the aisle of “throwing away votes”. We have become so entrenched in our binary political system that the idea of casting a vote for an alternative is seen as an act of treachery. Third party voters are even held liable for the victory of one major candidate over the other as if they are obligated to stop them from reaching office.

But if Americans are concerned with the idea of two parties controlling the system, then “throwing away” one’s vote for a third party is exactly what we should be doing. In the absence of ambitious leadership, Americans must prove to both parties that their death grip on our government is not assured. We must give our leaders a reason to serve: without the possibility of a candidate and the party at large being voted out the next cycle, there is no incentive to cultivate the interests of the people.

71% of Millennials want a strong 3rd party on the ballot [6]. Over 1/5 of Utahns voted for Evan McMullin in 2015. There is an obvious desire for a middle-ground, or at the very least, another strong option on the ballot. Our voter turnout rate ranks 28th out of the 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations at 55.7% for 2016 [7], and we must ask ourselves how much of this has to do with our two-party system.

We cannot allow apathy to shape our political attitudes. At the present moment, we live in constant gridlock and are at the mercy of those in power. If we truly care about shaking up the political status quo, then we must be brave and aspire to Washington’s vision:

“the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.”


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