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What is Fenno's Paradox?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American politics sometimes seems full of contradictions, but there's one that stands out in particular. In this lesson, we'll explore Fenno's Paradox and see what it tells us about American political opinions.

Dislike For Congress

If you went out into American society today and openly said some rather disparaging things about the United States Congress, you're unlikely to face much resistance. In fact, there's a fair chance you'll be answered with rousing applause. National polls have consistently indicated one simple truth for several decades now: Americans don't trust Congress.

The United States Congress has suffered low approval ratings for the past several decades
congress protester

Despite this distrust, legislators almost always get reelected. In 2014, Congress' approval rating was sitting at 13-15%. That's actually an increase in popularity from 2013 when, and this is real, cockroaches were rated as more popular than Congress.

Yet in 2014, 95% of incumbents were reelected. Americans dislike Congress, but almost always reelect sitting congressmen and women. Confused? You're not alone. This question troubled political scientist Richard Fenno, who in 1978 described this phenomenon in his book Home Style: House Members in Their Districts. His explanation is what we call Fenno's Paradox.

Fenno's Paradox

At it's most basic, Fenno's Paradox describes the oddity that individual congressmen and women have relatively high approval ratings, while Congress as a whole has a very low approval rating. Americans actually really like their representatives, enough to reelect them for years.

It's a common trend, and even outside of district reorganization tactics and gerrymandering that make it statistically more likely for an incumbent to be reelected, we do see that most Americans have a pretty good opinion about the person who represents their district.

Explanation of Fenno's Paradox

So, why does this actually occur?

Political scientists have long debated this question, and what they've found is that citizens actually judge Congress and congressional representatives on different criteria. What makes one seem successful does not necessarily make the other seem successful.

Consider Congress. Americans think Congress is doing well when new laws are being created, the economy is functioning alright, and there seems to be a lot of cooperation on Capitol Hill. By contrast, when all the media talks about is partisanship, antagonism, and a frustrated legislative process, Congress' approval ratings drop. Congress is judged by its ability to pass legislation in an orderly and civilized manner.

Congress is judged by how well it is perceived as functioning
congress political cartoon

That's not how we judge individual congressional representatives. Representatives are evaluated on a much more personalized basis. Basically, are they nice and what are they doing to show support and pride in the district they represent? It doesn't matter if the law gets passed, as long as people feel like the representative is still fighting for their cause.

In this sense, individual representatives have a great advantage. They are able to directly respond to the concerns of citizens within their districts. They can go home and participate in local events and parades, and they can show concern for local political, economic, and even social issues.

Plus, local newspapers tend to report frequently on their actions, so they have name recognition. That level of personalized attention is what makes it easier to like a single representative, while disliking the legislative body they serve in.

Fenno's Paradox and the Sophomore Surge

Fenno's paradox is closely related to several other phenomena that describe congressional elections. Perhaps the most significant is the concept of the sophomore surge, the tendency of incumbents running for their first reelection to do much better in the polls than they did in their initial election into office.

Basically, incumbents are more popular as incumbents than they were as new politicians. The reason for this is the same as the reason for Fenno's Paradox: after their first term, representatives have better name recognition and can run on their personal appeal to their district.

Despite low approval of Congress, all the red and blue zones on this map are districts that reelected the incumbent representatives in 2012
reelection map

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