By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Here's a riddle for you: Going into the midterm elections, approval ratings for Congress hovered at just around 14 percent, yet the win rate for Congressional incumbents was 96.6 percent. How can we reconcile those numbers? Americans have an incredibly low opinion of the institution, yet overwhelmingly return the same people to do the job. The complicated answer probably lies in a combination of embarrassingly low turnout, as well as higher name recognition and a whopping fundraising advantage for incumbents. But part of the reason also has to do with the uniqueness of aggregate evaluation: We judge differently when looking at groups versus individuals. That means that we can hate Congress and still love our congressman.
That tendency is so well-established in American political science that it has earned its own name: "Fenno's Paradox," after University of Rochester political scientist Richard Fenno Jr. It refers to the belief, frequently observed especially in midterm elections, that people will typically disapprove of the U.S. Congress even while they are more likely to typically support their own congressman. The more general principle applies in other settings as well. When it comes to public schools, for example, parents are likely to dislike the public school system while, at the same time, liking their own school. This tendency for general evaluations to differ from particular ones has some implications for litigation. Jurors, for example, can hate "corporations" while still loving a particular company or its executives. Alternately, they can distrust "plaintiffs" and "lawsuits" while, at the same time, believing that the one suit they're seeing is the exception to the rule. This post will share some ideas on the litigation implications of Fenno's Paradox.