The recent survey by Gallup indicate that Americans rated Congress dead last among 16 institutions. Only 11 percent of respondents expressed confidence in the deliberative bodies.
This was a drop of 17 percent from last year.
There is, of course, great irony in these numbers, representing a collective, negative judgment on the institution as a whole, despite the fact that incumbents are overwhelmingly re-elected year after year after year. Presumably, Americans feel about their congressmen and women the way they do about lawyers. They hate them all, except for their own.
The reasons for this negative assessment are harder to discern. No doubt, some hate Congress for doing too much. Others hate it for doing too little. So the collective judgment is a pastiche of mutually exclusive views about the role of government, spending, taxation and regulation.
Congress becomes a kind of Rorschach inkblot onto which citizens project their own visions of what they think the nation should or should not be.
Or at least that is what I used to think. Now I am not so sure. I have lived in Washington for almost nine years. During that time, I have observed legion of supplicants coming to town, many of them friends and colleagues, who have one mission and one mission only. That is, they want to lobby their congressperson for money for, fill in the blank, their school, their wastewater plant, their roads, their welfare program, their entitlements, their own precious little earmarks for this or that favored project.
It almost makes you appreciate even the pro-choice and anti-gun lobbies since they are at least focused on matters of principle, no matter how mistaken they may be.
Personally, I share the view that an ever-expanding federal government — bigger, fatter, spending at an atrocious rate — leads, inevitably to alienation. Expectations are sky-high as to what it can actually accomplish in a manner which can remotely be termed cost-effective. Disappointment is inevitable.
So there is a kind of cognitive dissonance in play.
Citizens get the government they want in a democracy, especially one that is even more detached from the republican constraints originally put in place by the founders. Egalitarianism combined with a redistributionist mania leads to disenchantment, Big Time, as Vice President Cheney might say.
The other night I had dinner with a friend who is writing a book on the dysfunction of Congress. He seemed to take the view that the problem was driven, primarily, by the insular, self-seeking political culture at the federal level. I argued that the general societal culture drives politics, and there may be something more fundamentally wrong with the body politic itself. My friend agreed this might be true; and we agreed that the two things could interact, synergistically, with each other. He promised to re-read his Tocqueville and consider the matter further.
Last week Anne Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post and an intelligent commentator on foreign policy matters, wrote an article entitled, “A government of the people’s every wish?”
While launching a couple of snarky shots at the Tea Party movement and Governor Sarah, Applebaum, expressed her concern that Americans really are different than what she has experienced around the world, but not in a good way:
If you don’t live in this country all of the time, and I don’t, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans — with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs — demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world.
Applebaum claims Americans “want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong.”
“And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too,” says the columnist. “And precisely because this is a democracy, Congress and the president respond, pass a law, build a building.”
Yet, “we rant and rave against vast bureaucracies we have created — democratically, constitutionally, openly” to deliver the “ludicrous levels of personal and political safety.”
Now, one can legitimately reply, “What about the Greeks, the French and the Scandinavians?” True, but that’s no excuse. What about America? What have we become? Pogo, call your office.