Over the past month, Americans have castigated, upbraided, mocked and lampooned their representatives in Washington over their behavior in the government shutdown/debt ceiling crisis. Never in the history of the English language has the word "dysfunction" been used so frequently. Poll after poll shows the approval rating of Congress hovering in the low teens or single digits, with one snarky survey claiming Americans prefer hemorrhoids, zombies and toenail fungus to the legislative branch.
Congress has given us plenty of reasons to feel angry and frustrated, fueling a national cry of "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." But before we continue with our gripes, we should take a step back and consider our own role, as voters and citizens, in the political mess we find ourselves in.
In a sign of the public frustration at the political class, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60 percent of respondents essentially stated that we should "throw the bums out" - that is, vote out every member of Congress. The reality, of course, is that we the people voted the bums in, and have done so over and over again. In 2012, in fact, we re-elected 90 percent of our incumbent senators and representatives, and we should bear some responsibility for that.
There is a longstanding disconnect between what Americans say about Congress as a whole and how they actually act when it comes to their own representatives. In May, a Gallup survey found that 16 percent of respondents approved of the performance of Congress, but 46 percent said their own representative was doing a good job. Interestingly, only 35 percent of those polled could actually name their representative, and among those 35 percent (presumable the people who vote regularly) 62 percent approved of the work of their own congressman.
We love to complain about Washington, but we almost never do anything about it. As far as our representatives are concerned, they are doing what they think we want them to do and what will win them re-election - and we're not telling or showing them anything to the contrary.
The majority of Americans may be moderate pragmatists, but our political discussion has been dominated in recent years by people on the extremes. We are a nation of centrists governed by the left and right. It is easy to grow cynical about politics, but when we become cynical and drop out of active participation, we cede the battleground to the people who made us so disgusted in the first place; we truly get the government we deserve. If reasonable people - people who may differ on policy questions but who recognize the importance of compromise, who understand that there is an important role for government but that it must live within its means - fail to speak up and act, then the militants take over and we get the situation we have today.
MoveOn.org and Americans for Prosperity should not be setting our political agenda. The drift away from the center is characteristic of both major parties, but it's especially striking with the more doctrinaire elements of the Republican Party, for whom neither Gerald Ford nor even Ronald Reagan would pass the litmus test today.
There are structural reforms we can make to nudge our political class toward the center, including nonpartisan primaries and independent, non-political bodies to redraw legislative districts. The real answer, though, is for people who are frustrated with Washington to move beyond griping and prove with their contributions, their time and their votes that they want something different.
Being in the center isn't generally very exciting, and few people get fired up about moderation, but that's where solutions are found. It's time to acknowledge our complicity in our nation's political dysfunction and take a good look in the mirror. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.