Monday, December 31, 2012

The public anger against Congress

The CNN story that prompted this musing is entitled, "Social media: Fiscal cliff deadlock is 'jeopardizing faith in our government'". Josh Levs' story opens thusly:
Across the country, millions are fed up with a Congress that seems unable to get some important things done.

"We need Congress to represent the people, not two arrogant parties that can't see middle ground," Garry Benner says.

"Nowhere else in this country can you get paid for ... years and not do your job," Tom Jeffries says.

There's nothing terribly surprising in or about this story. People want "Washington to put 'partisanship aside'", "to grow up, act like adults, do your jobs or resign immediately".

However, all this nattering, which we've heard before, did finally crystallize an inchoate gripe I've had with all the griping. It helps that I already identified a similar problem involving the NRA:

It's easy, though, to forget all those millions of supporters, and to imagine that groups like the NRA are malevolent creatures with their own lives. "Standing up" to those groups thus conjures the image of St. George fighting the dragon. The reality, though, is that the NRA isn't a malevolent creature: it's a megaphone for millions of people. If elected officials hesitate to resist it it's because those officials know that a lot of their constituents agree with the NRA.
Rhetorically it's highly satisfying to vilify "Congress" in the same way as a malevolent (or at least hopelessly obstructive) beast with its own life. In a related vein, we like to vilify Congresscritters as "children", or villains themselves, petulantly or maliciously preventing the House and the Senate from getting work done.

Reality check: "Congress" isn't alive. Corollary: nobody in Congress gives the least little damn what we, the people, think of Congress.

The people quoted in the CNN article are seriously misdirecting their anger. "Congress" has no independent will or identity that responds to the public at large: it's a body of elected representatives. And a House member does not give a shit what millions of Americans who can't vote for him think.

Our elected Congressfolk do what their constituents want, or they don't represent those constituents very long. Ergo, Congress is dysfunctional because we are dysfunctional. We don't allow for compromises any more out of ideological purity, so of course Congress is deadlocked.

If anybody is being childish, it's the public. We are divided and at cultural war with one another, yet we have an irrational expectation that Congress is supposed to rise above our divisions. What is that but a childish refusal on our part to face up to facts?

"Congress" is not going to fix itself. If we want it to change, we have to change first.

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