Our Unpopular Congress & What it Says About Politics

I’ll start this off by letting the following graph speak for itself:

Popularity of Congress


The unfortunate data may not be very surprising to most readers, as the sheer disgust and apathy towards our legislative body has pretty much become a canard in public discourse. Though Americans, like electorates everywhere, have always been cynical towards their public officials, it seems our collective sense of disconnection and discontent is at an unprecedented high (at least compared to recent history). Exhibit  B:

It’s not just the current Congress’s theatrics, pettiness, and partisanship that have turned us away from our ostensible representatives. After all, none of that is new – politics has always been a dirty business everywhere, even among our lionized Founding Fathers. The fact is, the 112th Congress – many of whose members will continue to serve in the newly established 113th – was the worst-performing in over 30 years, and by a considerable margin.

The last graph is courtesy of Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, who wrote an article listing 14 reasons why this is the worst Congress ever. Needless to say, it’s a pretty grim read.

But does all this public loathing of Congress come down to its mere ineffectualness? It may seem like a strange question to ask – of course we hate our public officials for being incompetent or pernicious. But Steven Mazie of BigThink, in a partial response to Klein’s article, raised an interesting observation – the preceding 111th Congress was more productive as far as lawmaking, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference in terms of public affection:

 Approval ratings during 2009 and 2010 (the span of 111th Congress) were only marginally higher than in 2011 and 2012 (the 112th), and lag way behind 2004 levels, when at one point nearly half of Americans were satisfied with the job Congress was doing. So there must be something else at work, some deeper cause of our dissatisfaction.

Of course, comparing one Congress with its direct predecessor doesn’t give as big of a picture as I would like. What about previous Congresses? Did they show a similar lack of correlation between support and effectiveness? Either way, this raises a good point, one that may go to the heart of our political culture.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau might say that Congress has become more and more unpopular as Americans have begun to appreciate its basic illegitimacy as a law-making institution. For Rousseau, true political freedom is only found when each citizen is an active participant in the law-making process of a society. If people are to live harmoniously and autonomously, they must all have a direct role in public affairs. Voting for “representatives” to do the job for us is no substitute. In fact, it is a recipe for slavery.

Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void— is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.

Maybe we’re getting what we deserve after all these years of selling ourselves to our representatives in Congress. It’s difficult to imagine a viable alternative — other than in small, local experiments, direct democracy seems out of the question for the 311 million members of the American polity. One ironic possibility, which I develop at the Economist today, is to empower House members with longer terms in office. There is strong evidence that frequent elections only exacerbate the travesty of Washington’s legislative slug-fest.

In any case, Rousseau’s complaints about representative government have never rung so true. We elect Congress, and yet we hold cockroaches in higher esteem.

Had I the time, I’d weigh in on this rather prescient observation. I definitely think there’s truth to it: the average American is woefully disconnected from the political process. Few of us even bother to know who our direct representatives are, let alone how the political process we’re a part of actually functions. It’s easy to hate something you have no stake in, especially as it breeds an elitist class of detached public officials that seem evermore indifferent to you, if not predatory.

But would participation really make the difference? Would we not, for example, be cynical towards those among us who come to power through the participation of those who disagree with us? Is cynicism the inevitable by-product of politics in an information age where we know a lot more about what’s going on, including (if not especially) the bad. Though it’s a counter-factual that can never be determined, I wonder if politics would’ve been any less pessimistic had the body politic of the past been as (relatively) informed as we have?

Most importantly, I wonder if all this discontent and seething will actually amount to anything – and if so, whether the outlet will be productive and beneficial rather than destructive.


2 comments on “Our Unpopular Congress & What it Says About Politics

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