Only 18 percent of the American public approves of the job that Congress is doing, according to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted in early February. That translates to more than three out of every five voters disapproving of Congress’ performance.

And this was in the first month of the Congress these same voters just elected or re-elected. How is this possible? What are the implications for our democracy if more than three times as many citizens are disapproving of our national legislature as approving?

Let’s start with why this is possible. It is not too much of a stretch to say that, as a group, we vote for the candidates we dislike the least; but by the end of the campaign season, we often don’t like either person running.

The 2020 U.S. Senate race in Maine between Susan Collins and Sara Gideon is a case in point.

The national Democratic Party targeted Collins as one of the incumbents they had to unseat to recapture control of the Senate. After subsequent criticism of Collins, including her support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, “Senator Collins will be well-funded, I can assure you.”

Indeed she was. In fact, the race turned out to be the most expensive election contest in Maine history. The two candidates spent $100 million on their campaigns, including a total of $44,202,061 on television and digital advertising. Additionally, political action committees supporting one candidate or the other spent $110 million on television advertising in the race.


An analysis of all 1,736 ads that aired during the race found that 389 were run by the Gideon campaign and 458 by the Collins campaign, while 438 were run by pro-Gideon PACs and 418 by pro-Collins PACs. However, characterizing the ads as pro-Gideon or pro-Collins is a misnomer; the PAC advertising was really anti-Gideon or anti-Collins.

Each ad was also categorized as either positive (favoring one candidate or the other), contrast (comparing the record of one candidate with that of the other), or negative (attacking one candidate or the other). Only 28.35 percent of the PAC ads were either positive or contrast, while 63.67 percent were negative. The candidate ads were more frequently positive or contrasting, but between them they too ran many negative ads: 22.19 percent of Gideon ads and 33.78 percent of Collins ads were negative. Obviously, some ads ran more than others, but if one looks at either the number of times an ad ran, how often a television ad was viewed or a digital ad accessed, and the amount of money spent on negative versus positive ads, the conclusion is the same.

How can we expect the public to have a positive impression of their representatives in Congress when the goal of a campaign is to besmirch the reputation of your opponent, and most of what we are told about them is negative? When the point is not to disagree with the opponent but to turn the opponent into an evil enemy?

Winners lose from this constant negative barrage as much as the losers. And when they go to Washington, when they try to reach solutions to difficult problems, they face a polarized partisan atmosphere that follows naturally from these campaigns. If a member of Congress wants to compromise, that lawmaker is considered giving in to the enemy.

Having just witnessed the heated Maine Senate campaign, it’s hardly comforting to think that politics here is more civil than in most of the nation. Regardless, the issue here and elsewhere is that this deep negativity is becoming a serious threat to our democracy. In fact, this threat is so serious that now more than ever, lawmakers should focus on fundamental campaign reform. The problem is that the lawmakers who would have to change this system are the same ones who have won under it.

With the foxes guarding the chicken coop, it is likely that extreme campaign negativity will not only persist but also continue to drive a deeply polarized Congress where compromise is next to impossible.

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