By: Benjamin Giles
The media loves close elections and elected officials do not. Elected officials like safe elections, and for quite some time in American political history there were few more potent guarantees of electoral safety than incumbency, particularly for a member of Congress. If a representative or senator wanted to keep his or her seat for another term, chances were very good. It has recently been the case that more than 90 percent of all congressional incumbents win re-election.
Combine that record with the fact that Congress has no term limits set out in the Constitution or any subsequent amendments, and a situation like ours is created. Politics is no longer just a calling, it is a career that one can maintain so long as one wins, which is much easier given incumbency. It is entirely possible now that an ambitious individual could be elected to Congress in hir or her late twenties and serve for literally decades, possibly rising to the Senate or any number of state and federal positions from there to lead a career that spans hir or her entire professional life. In other words, it is now relatively easy to become a “career politician.”
That is where we are now, and it is not a pleasant or otherwise appealing picture. However, there is hope. The virtual guarantee of re-election that came with incumbency was built on general public confidence in the government and in the performance of their specific congressman. That trust and confidence has been eroding for several decades, dealing serious damage to the benefits of incumbency.
Further, anti-establishment sentiment and rhetoric has been on the rise, and it has been popular with the electorate. If there’s anything that politicians like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and now Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can teach us, it is that standing against the system makes you do very well with the electorate. The persona of an outsider sick of the political status quo is a very potent one indeed, and many other famous and successful politicians have used it.
As is the case with many ideas, the resistance to incumbency has the potential to do both harm and good. On the one hand, having career politicians is a problem, since those who pursue a career in elected offices can become slaves to the electoral system
This is especially the case in regards to the influence of money in politics. After winning an election or re-election, many lawmakers immediately begin to fundraise for their next campaign. The bottom line is that there are many forces at play in winning elections, and career politicians run the risk of becoming too easily controlled by these forces.
At the same time, politics requires a very specific set of skills (which some politicians who should remain in office exercise with great success) and not everyone is cut out for it, especially at the national level. Being a politician in a democratic system requires charisma, good social skills and most importantly, a willingness to broker compromise. Too much anti-establishment fervor can lead to the election of candidates who do not have these skills and therefore cannot function as a politician.
Look at Donald Trump, who is woefully unqualified to be president and who is a businessman by profession. Trump is very charismatic and likely has strong social skills, but it is doubtful he has the other skills necessary for running the country. Yet, he seems unsinkable in the polls. Most of his popularity is based in his strong anti-establishment rhetoric and his appeal as a Washington outsider.
It is okay to be discontent with Washington and politicians in general. In a sense, that’s healthy for democracy, since the ballot box theoretically keeps leaders in check by giving the people the power to change the leadership if they are not satisfied. However, it is also crucial to understand that governing on a national level requires a finely tuned set of skills, and the election of leaders who do not possess these skills can have negative consequences for the country. It is good that incumbency’s advantages are eroding, but we must guard against taking anti-establishment sentiment too far.