Subjects and citizens in any political system expect to be able to complain to their superiors, and to have those complaints heard, if not always translated into action.
Part of this process is necessary to govern over a territory or an institution. If something is screwed up, if someone has a problem with your authority, you’re better off having that person come to you directly than to have them conspiring with someone else to take matters into their own hands. Having people come to you with their problems at all is a sign of power, because people don’t bother coming to the weak when they face a dilemma. Because of the difficulty involved in handling all the complaints of any territory of significant size, the subsidiarity principle is what’s supposed to keep that all manageable.
You don’t want a father petitioning the President when little Billy next door breaks the former man’s window with a foul ball. You should hope that that father should be able to work it out with little Billy’s father without requiring the intervention of the highest power in the land.
Unfortunately, as anyone with much experience with modern constituents can tell you, a lot of politicians receive ridiculous complaints and petitions of this nature from people who attribute deity-like powers to their political representatives. These are sometimes crackpots and idiots, but the smarter types will often fall to the impulse, also. This may also be related to secularism. If people no longer pray to saints or gods, they instead pray to politicians and celebrities, writing letters and making phone calls that might as well be to Santa Claus.
The impulse is still there, and the politician is more than happy to profane any sacred impulse that he can make use of.
Most politicians, really all politicians above the local level, tend to outsource this grievance-hearing to bureaucratic staff. If your receive a letter back from your representative, there’s a good chance that it was drafted off a template and signed by stamp or by a variety of staffers who have learned how to forge the legislator’s signature owing to repetition.
When the politician does hear the grievances of his people outside of a controlled environment (like a ‘town hall meeting’), it’s usually through the intermediary of a campaign consultant or some other professional campaign staffer. The populace comes to be aggregated, sampled, and understood through poll results. There does tend to be a disconnect between the political representative and the people in his district or state, because he is not really in active dialogue with them.
The way to buy access to a legislator is to pad his campaign coffers or to help him get his cronies elected, which has a similar effect. If you don’t have money, but you control a bank of voters, you can also broker some deals with the legislator. If you look at the personal schedule of any legislator, it is mostly full of personal meetings with these sorts of influence buyers when they are not attending to ceremonial legislative business or campaigning. If we look at a political system as you would a corporation, these people are the customers, and the politician is in the service business. Individual voters and their problems will usually be fobbed off to the appropriate state or federal bureaucracy.
In the same way as Facebook’s customers are not the users (the users’ attention and personal information is the product), a legislator’s customers are his campaign donors, and he tends to provide a pretty high level of service to those customers depending on how much power and influence he has. What lobbyists do is help to broker these deals, set prices, write legislation, and help their clients get results from the politicians whom they hire.
The political problems that most Americans have tend to be related to how this system is structured, which is not how it’s marketed to the American people. They want to believe that they have a voice, but because of the uselessness of a single vote (or even a ridiculous petition), they have no meaningful way of having their grievances heard and acted upon. That breeds resentment, political instability, and eventually, civil conflict.
What the media accomplishes to varying levels of success is to channel this grievance cycle into safe channels, and away from more potentially destabilizing ones. If you don’t like gay marriage, you vote for Rick Santorum during the Republican presidential primaries and spend the rest of the year grousing. If you want single payer healthcare, you can vote for Elizabeth Warren in the primaries, and then vote Hillary in the general election as a consolation prize.
According to democratic apologia, voting acts as a sink for discontent, which makes the system more stable, politically, than an authoritarian system in which rebellion and war are the only means of creating major change. In the US, political changes that would ordinarily require war or revolution can happen like complex business deals do, with a lot of stakeholders in government and industry having a hand in bringing about incredible changes in the structure of society without provoking open rebellion.
While the American system has many apologists who might tell you otherwise, it’s under-performing, and behaving more erratically as time goes on. The typical populist complaint is that the system is corrupt (which is true). The defeatist complaint is that the people are corrupt (which is also true). As a political system, modern bureaucratic democracy exists to suppress volatility, which is to say to suppress the flow of accurate information about real conditions in society, which must come through dynamism and variation.
This makes it so that the political structure appears to be robust on the surface, but internally, it becomes fragile. There is such a thing as excessive stability and stasis.