“Throw the bums out!” So say plenty of disgruntled voters in the face of government shutdowns, filibusters, and obstructions in recent years. Polls show that approval ratings for Congress are hovering around 15%, near their all-time lows. Over 70% say they want a turnover in Congress, and a majority of the polled commonly include their own representative in that judgment. The people are angry, if not furious, over the state of things in Washington, feeling themselves to be victims of flawed politicians and flawed government.
But an odd contradiction arises. In the midst of all the voter unrest, Congress seems to be as entrenched and immune to change as ever. Mostly the same politicians keep getting elected. Judging from the return of many of the worst offenders, accountability for bad governing practices does not seem to hold at all. If the voters truly wish to throw the “bums” out, why do they keep returning them to office?
Barney Frank in a recent article takes an unusual tack on the issue by focusing a critical eye on voters themselves. He argues that American voters are largely to blame for the virtual absence of political accountability. He sees an increasing cynicism and negativity in the voters’ view of government, a decline in the belief that government “works” or plays a constructive role in their lives. This negative view of government creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that “government doesn’t work.”
Far from causing voters to cast out the worst of the misbehavers in Congress, the attitude perversely causes them to reinforce the dysfunctional state of affairs. It motivates ideological voters “who don’t mind shutting down what seems like a failed system,” to vote for extremists. At the same time, it discourages many disillusioned voters who “care about cooperation,” from voting at all. This syndrome is notably reflected in off-year elections such as in 2010 and 2014, when far-right voters far outnumbered moderates.
This should concern progressives, especially as they head into a critical election. Right-wing Republicans have been very successful in pushing their theme of failed government. It is a sad fact that politicians who proudly boast about “starving the beast” and shutting down government should be able to carry out their agenda with virtually no fear of consequences at the polls. Indeed, the Republican right continues to reap the benefits of this strategy. Government as an evil institution that needs to be curbed and humbled, except in its military/police role, has become one of the most successful frames in modern political history.
The remedy for this situation is by no means quick or easy. Frank himself says simply that voters need to change their behavior: namely, show up and vote for “candidates actually willing to do the hard work of governing.” But such a change of behavior requires education, mobilization, and leadership on the part of the progressive community. Convincing people that they can make government responsive to their needs and promote justice is the crucial issue. Let’s show how it can be done!