How broken is the government that is proclaimed to be broken?

In an early attempt to understand some of the impressions of the first two weeks of the fellowship, I want to focus on an apparent contradiction that has struck me: how can it be that Americans seem to be so political, while at the same time have such aversion to their politicians and their political system?

In my eyes, the United States is arguably the most democratic society in the world. Every six years, each of the fifty states sends two senators to Washington. Every two years, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, each directly representing approximately 650.000 constituents, are up for election. Although I am probably looking with Washington biased eyes, it seems that American society is breathing with politics. I have already seen pro-life marchers come to Washington to speak to their members of Congress, voters petition their representatives about issues ranging from animal cruelty to the right to bear arms and lobbyists for every possible kind of social group walking the corridors of the House Office Buildings. Almost everything that concerns political activity in Washington is publicly accessible: constituents can meet their representatives, look up the status of bills and voting records, and investigate flight tickets and office supply expenses. Politics is also omnipresent in the media: A quick round of TV zapping leads you to discussions on BBC, CNN, Fox News, C-Span, a channel entirely dedicated to broadcasting politics 24/7, and a whole range of politically engaged talk-tv and comedy, from the right-wing Bill O’Reilly on Fox News to left-wing Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

At the same time, however, there is a strong and deeply rooted suspicion among Americans towards government and politics, which has a clear, quantifiable presence: I was struck when reading about a famous opinion poll in 2000, in which the ethical standards of politicians received a lower rating than those of bankers, journalists, lawyers and professionals in fifteen other fields. In fact, only prostitutes got a lower score. A recent Gallup poll shows that the United States Congress receives an approval rating of approximately 25%, indicating that a clear majority of the American people feel unhappy about the work of Congress that they have sent off to represent them in Washington. Moreover, overall voter turnouts are generally much lower than in most European countries.

What makes the paradox even more puzzling is that unlike their bad reputation, a large majority of representatives are actually reelected time and again. While in my own country, the Netherlands, having served for two 4-year terms already gives ‘seniority’ status, in the United States Congress it is no exception to serve for a couple of decades. Currently, there are ten members of Congress who have even served for more than 35 years. It was, therefore, maybe not such a big surprise to learn that when pollsters, in a follow up question on the approval rate of Congress, ask voters how they think about the work of their own representative, the answers are often much more positive.

I did not have to dig deep into academic literature or thoroughly analyse my impressions. In fact, worries about ‘political sclerosis’ and ‘broken government’ are widespread and even more widely discussed. A saying goes that the American political system is “designed by geniuses [the revered founding fathers] so it could be run by idiots [the current politicians]”. The statement might be rhetorical, but I guess that most people would agree that the process of policy making in Washington is slow and inefficient. More than being a powerful decision making institution, the Congress seems to be a marketplace of many local interests that Members have to sell if they want to serve their voters well (and thus be reelected), in the parallel process of legislative proposals having to go through the Senate and the House of Representatives a clear majority of proposals die.

Some say the system was meant this way, others argue that America needs reform if it wants to retain its position in the world. If Washington is a tax slurping monster that does more harm than good, or a bringer of direly needed health reform, probably remains to be argued for a long time. The partisan politics that result from this disagreement are all over the place and, for a society that seems so political in nature, is a source of widespread and often entertaining discussion, but it must also be very frustrating. Is American government really broken? With a vocal Tea Party Movement, a President that keeps raising the stakes for health care reform and a fragile economy, I am curious to see what the coming months are going to bring and hoping to get a little bit closer to the answer.

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