06 May 2010

Heaven is High Above, and Congress is Far Away

While I was not blogging over the past couple of months, ideas were constantly popping into and out of my head. I didn't bother writing any of them down, and they just evaporated.

But out of all those thought balloons, one has stuck with me, and that was the result of the Pew Research Center showing how dissatisfied Americans are with their government.

So I just looked it up, and it was from April 18th, here's the link: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government
Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation’s top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed. With the exception of greater regulation of major financial institutions, there is less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation’s problems – including more government control over the economy – than there was when Barack Obama first took office.

The public’s hostility toward government seems likely to be an important election issue favoring the Republicans this fall. However, the Democrats can take some solace in the fact that neither party can be confident that they have the advantage among such a disillusioned electorate. Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows while opposition to congressional incumbents, already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb.

This is not the case today. Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century. About the same percentage (19%) says they are “basically content” with the federal government, which is largely unchanged from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago.

Opinions about elected officials are particularly poor. In a follow-up survey in early April, just 25% expressed a favorable opinion of Congress, which was virtually unchanged from March (26%), prior to passage of the health care reform bill. This is the lowest favorable rating for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys. Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined by half – from 50% to 25%.

While job ratings for the Obama administration are mostly negative, they are much more positive than the ratings for Congress; 40% say the administration does an excellent or good job while just 17% say the same about Congress.

Now, that's a lot of discontent. It goes beyond just the economy, or other trite or conventional explanations. The discontent can be attributed to two base sources: a dissatisfaction with the two political parties, and the concentration of power in Washington.

The problems with our two political parties has been discussed here before, and much can be found elsewhere. Among regular people, the dissatisfaction is palpable, although many have a hard time articulating it, since they will still try to fit this huge and growing problem into the two party box.

The other issue is related to centralization. I read several months ago (and I don't remember who said it) in an argument against moving issues to the international arena, which is "How can a local citizen of limited means ever hope to influence a decision made at an international conference." Of course, they can't. Which is exactly the reason some in government want to do so: to keep the riff-raff out. Any by riff-raff, they mean you and me.

The same problem arises on the national level. What chance do you or I have in influencing a decision of a national body? A Congress and federal bureaucracy that must deal with hundreds of millions of us, involving trillions of dollars. Good luck to the citizen of modest means, who may be busy with a job or family, and who doesn't get a chance button-hole a Senator at the local golf club.

Power is being taken away from the local politicians that you can meet and know. When the national government is deciding where to build a local road, what the local speed limit is, what the local drinking age is, what the local building code is, whether you can resell children's toys at a garage sale, what the policies of your local elementary school will be, what local business gets a tax break, who your local bank will lend money to, whether a local factory gets built, whether a local port can expand, where your local mass transit can buy their vehicles, where your health care comes from (and on and on and on...) what real authority does your local government still have, exactly? What are your chances of real participation? How can you hold your local politicos to account when in all probability, their hands are tied?

That is not to say that there is not a good reason for each federal regulation or power. Each one can undoubtedly be justified. But when combined, it is not only overwhelming, but also unresponsive and distant. As the Russians say, "Heaven is high above, and the Czar is far away."
Now you may reply, "But at least we get to elect our Congress." But how much do we really?

Most of us live in districts so gerrymandered, that we don't really have a choice in November. Combine complex campaign finance laws and large political donors, with unresponsive and corrupt political machines in the Democrats and Republicans, and the real question is not the large number that are discontent, but that so many remain content.

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