R-E-S-P-E-C-T or, Why I Feel Bad for Congress
Aretha spelled it. Rodney Dangerfield complained he didn't get it. As far as social values go, the erosion of respect is an epidemic that has arguably been declining since it was defined into existence. Yet it is not simply an important topic inspiring song lyrics and comedy sketches in popular culture; the problem of detoriating respect is evident in examinations of measurements of political efficacy, public approval ratings, and the general tone and messaging used to shape political discourse today.
Just like the Rolling Stones can't get no (satisfaction), the miserably low approval ratings of Congress demonstrate that the largest and most powerful legislative body in the country fails to incite respect from the citizens entirely responsible for its membership. If you have not been keeping up with the latest polling numbers, they look pretty bleak.
- 11% of US voters think Congress is doing a good job (according to the Rasmussen Reports)
- The positive reviews of Congress have remained below 30% for the last 3 years (according to the Pew Research Center)
- 78% of Americans disapprove of Congress (according to the Gallup Polls)
On the plus side, the approval ratings from May 2016 based on the Gallup research show 18% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job which is DOUBLE the number of November 2013 in which 9% responded positively. [18% isn't passing academically, it isn't even close (no rounding up to a C- there!). Claiming this is the "plus side" may be a bit of a stretch then but, what can I say, I am an optimist.]
So how does this happen? We can't complain about the only federal institution that is wholly responsive to direct elections....can we? Thought that fact is important, it does not seem to stop us. Wait, what?!, you might say. We (the voting public) elect these individuals that we seemingly dislike to an institution that we apparently hate. Then we look at our actions (electing representation) and still determine that, despite the fact that these representatives won a majority of the vote and therefore are popular by political definition, we don't actually like them. Whoa.
This is not a new phenomenon, though it certainly is an unusual one. Research in Congressional approval and elections often pointed to a paradox between individual and institutional approval, wherein a constituent would report positive feelings with regards to his/her own representative but negative opinions of the institution as a whole. Even members of Congress (or MoC as very cool academics like, ahem, moi, enjoy abbreviating it) don't like Congress. Richard Fenno, one of my all-time favorite authors on Congressional elections to read when I was in graduate school, observed that people run for Congress by running against it, i.e. candidates complain about how elitist and out-of-touch MoC as a motivator for voters to elect them.
The term "Congress" itself is actually Latin for "coming together" which makes it all the more ironic that we "come together" to elect a person who will then "come together" with others to create legislation for the public good and yet we still don't seem to like any of these people.*
(*except our own representative because he/she is cool...it is just the other 534 other folks we don't care for, or 532 if you like both of your Senators).
I am not the first one to acknowledge this paradox (google "why do we hate Congress" to see roughly 1.1 million articles, blog posts, charts, graphs, and cartoons that will happily explain their own response to the question). Quite frankly, I don't care (that slash I do not have anything novel to add to this critique and it seems like a meaningless quibble that fails to propose a solution). I care much more about why we hate our own institutions in the first place. Just what is so bad with Congress? What is so truly terrible about a collective of 435 + 100 members who vote as a way of giving us, the much larger population who does not serve and therefore have a direct say on national policies, representation?
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this entire discussion is that no one has openly advocated for the abolition of such a loathed and inpotent institution, despite the fact that, for both good and bad, that seems to be "The American Way." (trademark pending). I love our country and our culture but one of our worst attributes is the very quick process through which we determine judgements, be it whether someone is the love of your life (done in a single television season, vis-a-vis The Bachelor/The Bachelorette) or whether you are guilty of a serious crime (OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, etc. etc. etc.). Suffice it to say, we are not exactly a conservative, deliberative society.
Congress is not The BachelorBachelorette (though it does have some as members!). We can't quickly decide that we just naturally love someone or hate them, based on a singular vote, a particular behavior, or an out-of-context quote. Hell, a two-year term is hardly enough time to prove anything and yet that is exactly what we command our HoR candidates to do. Long-term gratification be damned, we want it fast and we want it now pleaseandthankyou. Before this sounds like an exclusionary indictment, I will admit that I am among the worst offenders of this. I like quick results, I like working hard and seeing everything work out immediately, knowing that my deliberative choices and painstaking effort paid off.
This kind of perspective is toxic to the health of our democracy. If we only complain about our institutions and the people who occupy them, what are we actually doing? [Nothing.] It is easy to fall into the trap believing that all politicians are crooks and that the whole system is corrupt and that there is no hope anywhere, ever again. Might as well just watch Netflix forever because, based on this depressing paradigm, nothing is ever, ever, ever going to get any better. (That line sounds really fun if you say/sing it in your Taylor Swift voice. Do it. I promise, super fun, right?)
How about we show our institutions and individuals a little love and respect for the work that they do? How about we agree that, while things are far from perfect or parity, they have the ability to improve, but only if we all do our part? How about if we have more respect for Congress, for voters, for the system as a whole and show that we believe in the system set forth by generations before us and we believe in the common good it can produce? Maybe if we all had a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our government and each other, we would also witness a little more P-R-O-D-U-C-T-I-V-I-T-Y? Or P-O-S-I-T-I-V-I-T-Y? It is easy to complain and to judge; action is much harder, but I do truly believe, it is absolutely, 100% worth it.