You are on page 1of 10

America’s political system:

Lack of Congressional Representation, as it is linked to the Celebritization of


Political Figures, and its Consequences
By Jacob J. Belson

Jacob Jonathan Belson is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Political Science with
a concentration in International Relations, graduating as a second year this summer summa cum
laude and in the Honors College. He is a staff writer for Ha’am and head of its columnist
program; he serves as outreach chair for Students Supporting Israel; and, is President of the
California Freedom Project at UCLA. He is active in many different Jewish groups on campus.
After he graduates this Spring, he will study in Israel for a year in a Yeshiva, while applying to
master programs and law schools. He hopes to one day drop out of grad school and pick up
comedy writing.

I. Introduction

In large Congressional districts, averaging 730,000 individuals1, it is impossible, within the


spirit of representative democracy, to truly represent these many people. With these many
people, diversity of thought is wide, arguably making a single representative at the federal level
insufficient. This lack of representation questions the legitimacy of the system. As the lower
house of the Congress, the House of Representatives intends to be “of the people,” while the
Senate, as the Upper House, obligates to deliberate the states’ interests. But according to Gallup,
since 1974, Congress’ approval rating has rarely gone above 50%, averaging at 30.9% [See
Graph 1]. This means that although Congressional representatives require a plurality of votes to
win, Congress has rarely received a majority approval rating. This shows a feeling of
disenfranchisement—many people are not being adequately represented in Congress. Due to its
lack of populace representation, the Lower House has essentially turned into another Upper
House.

Large numbers of individuals in Congressional districts leads to unaccountability2. With only


435 seats in the House of Representatives, special interests need to only buy 218 members to
pass a bill. Given the millions of dollars needed to run a successful campaign, due in part to the
need to reach hundreds of thousands of voters, Congressmen can be bought by these special
interests. Special interests alleviate the heavy costs of running a successful campaign in
exchange for representation in Congress. Also, according to economists Mark Thornton and
Marc Ulrich, in their study into the differences between smaller and larger legislatures, they
concluded, “smaller legislatures result in larger constituencies, poorer representation, and higher
levels of government spending per capita.”3

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the House of Representatives is an outlier in


population per representative. The lower houses of other major countries are considerably
smaller, where Britain and Italy have one representative for every 97,000; Canada and France,
114,000; Germany 135,000; Australia 147,000; and Japan, 265,0004.


Graph 15

Graph 1 shows the approval rating of Congress from 1974 to 2017. It being low might show
the paradox that although constituencies, in general, are satisfied with their own member of
Congress (with a 97% reelection rate to the 115th Congressional House of Representatives in
20166), they are rarely satisfied with Congress as a whole. An analysis of this might show that
although the plurality of districts feel as though their representative adequately represents them,
they do not believe Congress as a whole represents them.

With this lack of Congressional representation, America’s political system has become the
driving force in the celebritization of political figures; this means that congressional races have
arguably become more of a competition for “well-knowness”7, rather than advocating for a
policy that works. In politics, “well-knowness” is the characteristics of familiarity and name
recognition. With such large subsections of the U.S. population, politicians need less to worry
about individual policy factors, and focus more on general, broad-stroke partisan policy and their
own celebrity spotlight. For instance, a candidate for Congress could gauge the median political
party leaning of his or her district and broadly align, to garner votes and win the district’s
election. This would ignore the specifics of minority interests in the name of averages and use
party brands instead of focusing on the inner-workings of individualized policy. Further
exacerbating this issue are the emergence of news organizations, which provide economic
incentives that favor infotainment (broadcast material that is intended both to entertain and to
inform) and the celebritization of news. Thus, in this article, I will be discussing the historical
foundation of the celebritization of Congressional political figures and its effect on federal
representatives, especially Representatives in Congress. I will also be discussing the usage of
party brands in an American system with little representation of independents. Lastly, I will be
discussing the effects of news-media in further exacerbating the issue of celebritization, in an
argument to decrease celebritization by increasing congressional representatives.

II. History of Congressional Representation




From the bricks of its establishment until today, the United States has been in a constant
struggle through bounds and errors for Democratic representation. In the 1750s until the 1760s
before the American Revolution, “No Taxation Without Representation” characterized a
common zeitgeist for a fight against the abuse and misrepresentation by the British government,
openly calling for direct representation in the distant British Parliament. Even after the American
Revolution, the fight for representation and its true meaning persisted in the newly birthed
United States. The Articles of Confederation, adopted November 15, 1777, was perhaps a polar
reaction to a former ruling British system stripped of American representation, by looking to a
small central government instead of a king. Using a weak central government, the Articles
created a loose confederation of sovereign states, parting state governments with the most
power8. Later, after a strong battle between Federalists and anti-Federalists, the United States
Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789. The Constitution not only
gave the Federal government more power, but also, by effect, created a legislative and executive
body with larger bounds of representational duties. These new politicians, like the newly
established head of the executive branch (the President), were to be elected by the Electoral
College. The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes to decide the President
and the Vice-President of the United States9, and are chosen by voters who determine which
candidate (their party) receives their state’s electors. The Electoral College is entrusted to be a
barrier of compromise and reason between a popular vote and a vote of Congress for the
Presidency, as 21 states have no requirements that their electors cast their vote for the candidate
that wins the statewide popular vote. States that do have such laws usually threaten electors with
being charged with a misdemeanor or a small fine, usually $1,00010.

As a staunch anti-Federalist, Thomas Jefferson believed in a representative democracy built


around small communities. Through the idea of individualism and the rights of communities,
Jefferson believed that the best way to represent people was on a local level11. Jefferson feared
the impulses of a strong central government, where national majorities could impede the
individual rights and community rights of minorities. But when the country urbanized, Jefferson
and his fellow anti-Federalists and Republicans saw their ideals of the primacy of local
government and a mainly agrarian national economy, based on small intendent farmers, failed.
Representation on the national level seemed necessary to handle a fast economy built through
urbanization, factories, and trade. And quickly, through the Constitution (which now included a
Bill of Rights), more power was given to the federal government, and the balance of power was
tipped.12 Through population, it was established that different states would have different
amounts of representation in the Congress. In the legislative branch, equal numbers of Senators
(two) existed in each state, while in the House of Representatives, Representatives were
allocated proportionally amongst the states. With fear that districts would become too expansive,
anti-Federalists were worried that because the Bill of Rights did not guarantee the number of
seats in the House, only well-known individuals with wider reputations could secure election
(usually elites). Therefore, the anti-Federalists argued, there would be an insufficient relationship
between those elected to office and the ordinary people in their district.

On Friday, February 15, 1788, James Madison published Federalist 55, The Total Number of
the House of Representatives. In the paper, Madison addressed the anti-Federalists concern with
Representatives and expressed the concern that the representative body would not increase in
size, leading to less representation and more politicization13. Therefore, Madison proposed
Article the first, which would have required at least one Congressional Representative for every


50,000 individuals. The Congressional Apportionment Amendment, originally titled Article the
First, read:

After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there
shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall
amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by
Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less
than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of
Representatives shall amount to two hundred, after which the proportion shall be
so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred
Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand
persons.14

But after many years, the amendment was controversially still not ratified, and interestingly, it
was the only amendment proposed to the first Constitution to have never been ratified. Instead,
with the suggestion of George Washington, Section III of Article 1 of the Constitution outlined,
“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State
shall have at Least one Representative.”15 Congress never tried to maintain a ratio close to one
Representative for every 30,000 individuals, showing a lack of commitment to this philosophy.

According to the 1790 United States census, two years after the Constitution was ratified,
there were 106 representatives in the House for a population of 3.93 million people (not
including Native Americans), equating to roughly one representative for every 37,000
individuals16. Because of this, representatives acted as local businessmen, artisans, and
community leaders, and many of them had personally known a large portion of their
constituency as a result17. This contrasts with the idea of career politicians of today, who are seen
more like idols and less as citizen representatives18. However, as the nation continued to grow, so
did the number of representatives in Congress (although not proportionality to the growth of the
United States’ population). After the 1910 census, the House of Representatives made its final
permanent increase, from 394 to 435. At this point, each congressman in the House represented a
mean average of 211,000 individuals. This fix at 435 people was made through the
Reapportionment Act of 1929, which insured that instead of growth in states leading to an
increased number of seats in Congress, faster growing states would simply take seats from
slower growing states. When this act was passed, representation increased from one
representative for every 211,000 individuals to one representative for every 282,000 individuals.
Were this ratio to exist today, there would be approximately 1,100 representatives in the House
today19. However, as of 2017, the United States shares one representative for nearly every
730,000 individuals. If that ratio had been maintained in 1789, the nation would have only had
eight representatives in Congress.

Graph 2 shows the growth of the average number of people represented per representative in
the U.S. House of Representatives. If this current trend were to continue, we could see as much
as one million individuals represented by just one person in the House of Representatives by
2030. This would create an even further lack of representation, as increased levels of individuals
(and therefore sentiments) would be represented by a single Representative.

Graph 220

A lack of representation per individual regularly leads to the celebritization of the


politicians which are supposed to represent these individuals, due to their inflated relevancy.
This is explained in the following section of this article.

III. Celebritization, news-media, and infotainment of news

The importance and the relevancy of a politician is also directly related to how much
television and the press would benefit from the personalization of said politician21.
Personalization simplifies reporting. This simplification makes news more appealing for the
public, and thus increasing revenues for media outlets. This economic incentive is generally the
driving force behind news-media’s desire for personalization and celebritization of politicians.
For viable gubernational or Presidential contenders, being interviewed by celebrity TV hosts like
Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert is almost expected—but for Congressional candidates, this
coverage is also important, even if it is on local news instead of cable news. This helps
politicians attract an audience who might not be as keen on politics but would still like to vote.
Because the news-media benefits from personalization of politicians (through viewership),
politicians who expect to win larger districts (e.g., congressional districts) often focus more on
their personal branding and shape their communication strategies to exploit how they are covered
by the media22. Media refers to and comments on politicians similarly to superstars, and often
ignores the actual specifics of that politician’s policy, actions, or beliefs23.

Due to personalization, politicians change the way they communicate with the press by more
often subjecting their private lives for greater media exposure. This shows the public that they
are more like them than they might think, and also removes some focus from their objective
thoughts on policy and humanizes them. With congressional districts, this means relevant media
has a deeper advantage to focus on the character and the personal life of politicians rather than
the actual politics (unless the politics are surprisingly unusual for the district, which might be
interesting for the media because of its oddity). This creates an arena of publicity, where


politicians know that so long as their politics roughly trail the district’s median voter, their
personality and “well-knowness” is what sets them apart from their rival candidates. This is
especially significant during campaigns for party nominations when candidates all share a similar
political belief system.

With this system of competing for “well-knowness,” incumbents share an inherent advantage
by already being celebritized by the media (and because they already share, at least broadly, their
constituents’ beliefs). This is part of the explanation of why incumbents almost always win
reelection; in the 114th Congress, of all those who sought reelection to the 115th, over 97% won
reelection24. As a result, this weakens the role of accountability, as with virtual stability and
voting support from their district, Congressmen might feel compelled to only answer to their
political party (which will be discussed in the next segment). Arguably, by diluting the power of
Congress (by increasing its representation), a political candidate’s relevancy would be greatly
deflated. Thus, television and the press would not benefit as much from the personalization or
celebritization of politicians (because representatives would be generally less important if there
were more of them), ultimately mitigating the issue.

IV. Party Brands

Today, Congress is more polarized than ever on party lines25. Party whips of each party in
each house help track their party member’s votes, and help ensure a proper number of votes are
placed within their party in support of a bill or against it. The advantages of being in a party and
voting with it is pork barrel spending, which is when spending is placed in a representative’s
district in exchange for their vote. The disadvantages of not voting with a party could range from
being withheld from an appointment to a powerful committee, or having the party support
another candidate in the primary election with both endorsements and party funds. With such
large congressional districts, where high spending is a necessary part of the process to attract
votes and build celebritization alongside media, party affiliation is an important aspect of
possibly showing a constituency that a politician (at least broadly) aligns with the district’s
political ideals, and that they could represent them in Congress.

Graph 3 shows that on the ideological dimension, since the 1970s, polarization has only
widened due to the two main parties in Congress. Because of this polarization, voting records,
for the most part, have become predictable for almost all members of Congress strictly based off
their party affiliation.

Graph 326

Most local elections are nonpartisan by law27. A “nonpartisan election” usually means that
those running for office cannot declare a party affiliation, and political parties can neither
endorse nor oppose a political candidate in that election. Whether the politician conforms to a
political party or not, their “independence” from a faction inherently gives the representatives
more freedom to follow their constituents’ interests, working with them to fulfill their interests
With a larger congressional body, with more representation and less expensive campaign
expenses, many politicians might find it more of a barrier to run with a political party, creating
expectations for them to vote a certain way even if it might not necessarily always be in their
best interest. Also, with more politicians willing to run as independents, the possibility of
dismantling the two-party system becomes almost expected, especially since, according to a
2017 Gallup poll, 44% of American voters identify as independent.28 Even though certain
districts might be overwhelmingly conservative or liberal, 44% is an average across individuals
in the United States, and is a larger percentage than either Republican (25%) or Democrat (28%)
portions of the United States. Therefore, it would make sense that most seats in the 115th
Congress would be held by independents. However, this is not the case. In the present 115th
Congress, with 435 seats in the House of Representatives, there are zero seats held by
independents; and in the Senate, there are only two seats held by independents (99.6% of
Congressmen are either Democrats or Republicans, while only 53% of the population identifies
as such)29.

As a small legislature, the diverse views and values of constituents are standardized, which
invents “party politicians” rather than district Representatives. The principles of these politicians
are less likely to be clearly defined, and thus, they can turn to serving special interests, which
often purchase representation not through votes, but through promises of campaign financing.
Also, with smaller legislatures, one political party could more easily dominate, since


representatives rely more heavily on party branding to represent larger districts. On the other
hand, larger legislatures mean more representatives, who could then more easily represent the
diversity of Americans through these smaller districts, leading to more proportional
representation30.

According to Duverger's Law, larger districts are more likely to enable a vote in a two-party
system, since they are less representative. So, with smaller districts, Congress would be much
more likely to encapsulate more minority opinions, breaking the two-party system and letting
independents, who often find themselves politically near the center, have a voice, instead of
remaining “undecided”.

The differences between congressional elections and local elections, primarily due to sizes of
districts, can be seen through campaign funding. This will be elaborated on in the next section of
this article.

V. Congressional Elections v. Local Elections, difference in campaign funding

Today, almost exclusively due to campaign funding, the House of Representative is overrun
with special interest agendas31. When running a campaign, a large difference between
congressional and state legislators is campaign funding. According to the University of
Washington at Bothell, as of 2012, the median cost to run a successful city council campaign in a
large, major American city was $153,00032. While on the other hand, the cost to run a successful
congressional campaign, as of 2012, sat at a median cost of $1.7 million33. The lower cost of
running successful local campaigns implies that special interests would most likely have a
smaller impact on local campaigns because the lower cost (probably devised from the smaller
body represented) could often be fundraised to a significant extent.

An obvious correlation, then, would be that that if congressional races were far more
localized with representation, as the framers desired, costs of running a successful campaign
would decrease, and so would the ability of special interests to shape campaigns and, eventually,
policy. Not to mention, paradoxically, as according to columnist George Will, increasing the size
of the House would reduce the need for campaign finance restrictions34.

The solution to end celebritization of politicians would arguably be to deflate the value of
individual politicians through increased representation. If a member of the House of
Representatives did not represent 730,000 people, but rather (to an extreme-point), only 50,000
as the Framers recommended, perhaps they would not be notable enough to be “celebritisized”.
Instead of making national or semi-national news, politicians would be more anonymous, non-
partisan, and share the same exposure as today’s city-councilmen and state senators (because the
power of current Congressmen would essentially be divided by 25). Perhaps it is only through
extreme localization of politicians that the United States will receive policy makers unshaped by
special interests, and more willing to almost exclusively represent the interests of their small
districts in the national government, and will know that it is their actual voting record that will be
more relevant than celebritization by the media. Essentially, special interests would unlikely be
willing to interfere with over 10,000 Congressmen, and the news-media would unlikely be
willing to “celebritisize” someone with a small fraction of influence.

VI. Conclusion

As shown through the history of congressional representation, the U.S. has experienced a
large decrease in the ratio of representatives to those represented. Due to economic incentive by
the news-media, this decrease has spawned the “celebritization” of political figures, calling for
congressional candidates to run on broad-strokes of political alignment and “well-knowness,”
making political parties more relevant. With such large subsections of the U.S. being represented
by only one person, campaign costs are expensive, making special interests important in gaining
capital to win an election. Perhaps with a larger ratio of representative to individuals, there
would be less celebritization of political figures (because candidates would be more anonymous),
there would be less party affiliation and more freedom to truly represent the interests of a smaller
and more nuanced district, and special interests would have a harder time in buying politicians.

Important questions to ask in relation to the problems of a lack of representation is what are
the consequences of too much representation? With too many politicians, would there be a
system that is too slow to function? How would our nation’s government respond in times of
crises, when immediate responses are necessary, if there are more sentiments in Congress? And
lastly, would this type of system, of de facto limited government, be optimal in crafting routine
policy?


1
http://thefederalist.com/2016/03/14/want-to-fix-congress-add-5500-new-representatives/
2
Unaccountable Congress: It Doesn't Add Up
3
Constituency Size and Government Spending (Thornton and Ulrich)
4
http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/04/representatives_parliament
5
http://www.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx
6
https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/reelect.php
7
http://www.europaeum.org/files/teaching/summerschools/SS2010_Veronika-Frantova-
paper.pdf
8
Articles of Confederation (https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html)
9
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/06/what-is-the-electoral-college_n_2078970.html
10
http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=967
11
http://www.ushistory.org/us/20b.asp
12
http://www.history.com/topics/constitution
13
Federalist 55
14
https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CONAN-2013/pdf/GPO-CONAN-2013.pdf
15
United States Constitution
16
https://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/enlarging-the-house-of-representatives/?_r=0
17
http://www.thirty-thousand.org
18
http://www.thesavvystreet.com/america-2016-the-dead-end-of-career-politicians/
19
http://www.thirty-thousand.org
20
http://www.thirty-thousand.org



21
http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199270125.001.0001/oxfordhb
-9780199270125-e-030
22
Mediating Europe: New Media, Mass Communications, and the European Public Sphere
23
http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5720/bennett_2012.pdf
24
https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/reelect.php
25
http://voteview.com/political_polarization_2014.htm
26
http://voteview.com/political_polarization_2014.htm
27
http://www.nlc.org/partisan-vs-nonpartisan-elections
28
http://www.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx
29
https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44762.pdf
30
http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/8/expand-the-house-of-representatives/
31
http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/09/opinion/flynn-expand-congress/
32
http://www.msnbc.com/hardball/how-much-does-it-cost-win-seat-congre
33
https://www.uwb.edu/getattachment/policystudies/why-policy-studies/student-
work/malinowski-capstone.pdf
34
http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/09/opinion/flynn-expand-congress/