In a New York Times story yesterday, reporter Jennifer Steinhauer told readers that in townhall meetings across the country members of Congress are not being told to compromise or find common ground, but rather to dig in, fight harder, and not compromise. Steinhauer was right to tell readers that these townhall meetings tend to be magnets for activists and the "most partisan and intransigent factions of both parties."
She's right and it's important to understand that these very vocal folks represent a distinct minority. According to data collected by the American National Election Studies, the most comprehensive database of Americans' political activities and beliefs, only 10% of the electorate attended a political meeting or rally in 2004 or 2008 - and these were presidential campaign years, so the that is probably the high watermark for attendance.
So 90% of the electorate does not attend these meetings and their voices are not heard by members of Congress. That would not matter if the 10% was representative of the absent 90% - but they are not. The American electorate is generally quite moderate, with a plurality (about 34%) describing themselves as pure moderates. Add in the folks who identify as only slightly liberal or conservative and you have 60% of Americans walking that middle road.
The folks who attend meetings and rallies are decidedly more ideological. In fact, the ideological distribution among those who attend meetings is nearly the inverse of those who do not. Fully 56% of meeting attendees come from the left and right wings of the ideological distribution - in recent election years they have tended to be more liberal than conservative, but with a Democratic President that has likely shifted somewhat.
Members of Congress are on recess and talking with constituents. Unfortunately, they are hearing a distorted message from party activists who despise compromise and celebrate partisan warfare. Meanwhile, the opinions of the vast majority of the electorate, a moderate electorate, are not being heard.
Want to stop the nonsense? Make sure you contact your member of Congress.Make your voice heard. In a recent post, I highlighted the fact that campaign volunteers and contributors tend to be far more partisan and ideological. So the folks who go to meetings, write checks, and knock on doors represent a very small, but very vocal, and ideologically committed slice of the electorate. Their level of commitment magnifies the influence of their small numbers.These folks are contributing to the poisonous nature of contemporary politics.
In a Democracy, even when it's a representative republic, larger numbers can defeat louder voices.