From Liberty Street: The Congress of the United States

John Turner

Over the weekend it was widely reported on the TV political programs that public approval of Congress stands at 16%. All commentators acknowledged that the people are fed up with Congress. None that I heard offered an explanation of why.

Commonsense ought to provide us the reason. People are admired or detested because of ordinary virtues and vices. With respect to Congress, the three pairs that stand out are honesty/falseness, courage/cowardice, and intelligence/stupidity.

Common opinion in the United States holds that most members of Congress possess neither honesty, nor courage, nor intelligence. And in this instance common opinion is right. Why should this be the case?

Commonsense also tells us that in any social situation most people go where the rewards are. So if falseness, cowardice and stupidity mark any group of people, they must have discovered that those are the ways to get the goods that society offers.

Yesterday, on the CBS program Face the Nation, Elizabeth Dole, the senator from North Carolina, made a series of boneheaded pronouncements so fatuous that they, by themselves, ought to disqualify her forever from any office of public trust. With a happy smile and cheery manner she told the nation she was facing that Democrats will weaken U.S. security, that the economy is in a wonderful condition, that though problems remain in Iraq, it is not a prime concern in this election and, besides, that things are getting better there, and that the only reason Republican candidates are not mentioning Mr. Bush during the current campaign is that his name is not on the ballot. This was all a pack of idiocy and, yet, it was exactly what most people -- including most members of the press -- expected her to say and, therefore, not a pronouncement deserving of much notice.

When we regularly expect our representatives to make false, cowardly, dumb remarks, guess what, they do it.

How is it, and why is it, that we have brought forth in this nation a system of political discourse in which no one is expected to say anything sensible? Why is it that when, upon occasion, someone does venture to make an intelligent remark. he is written off as being politically naive?

The only answer I can think of is that we, the people, have got into the habit of caring more about being flattered than we do about good government. All politicians know this so they put their efforts into flattering some sector of the population and scarcely ever think about good government. You can, of course, call that a kind of shrewdness, but it's a shrewdness that leads finally to disgust and contempt, to an approval rating of 16%.

I continue to harbor the hope that if a politician would arise who would speak the simple truth, not only about the government but about the electorate also, that the people would find him or her refreshing. That might not be the case, but it seems like it's an experiment worth trying. I recognize, though, that the political system, seeing such a candidate as a threat to the status quo, would do all it could to hold him or her down, or, more likely, to paint him or her as a lunatic. Breaking out of the political system to speak the truth is not going to be easy.

The  most difficult truth, for a politician to deliver to the people will be this: you cannot have good government as long as you pay no more attention to government than you are paying now. You the people, we the people, are not well enough informed to staff a fully functioning democracy. As long as we know no more than we do now, we are going to remain prey to disgusting demagogues of the sort that have governed us for the past five years.

Then, if the people reply, "we don't want to pay attention because it makes our heads hurt; we would rather lie on our couches, eat popcorn, and watch Jerry Springer," they could at least be told, "Okay, then you're going to suffer the ills of bad government, so stop griping about it."

I know, I know, this is a fantasy. But maybe it's a fantasy we should let roll around in our heads a bit. Perhaps, then, we could begin to divest ourselves of politicians on the level of Libby Dole, and that, in itself, would be something.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 23, 2006