No Politics, Please

No Politics, Please

Congress's popularity seems to depend less on public involvement in the political process than on the morality of the representatives.

Read Time:
1m 48sec

"How to Make Congress Popular" by John R. Hibbing, in Legislative Studies Quarterly (May 2002), Comparative Legislative Research Center, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.

Why is Congress so unpopular with the American public? Because legislators don’t carry out the wishes of their constituents, is the usual response. If ordinary people had more access to the democratic process, they would clasp the institution to their bosom. Poppycock, says Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Basing his analysis on data from surveys and focus groups, Hibbing contends that Americans don’t feel "shut out" of the legislative process but have happily opted out. The "American populist spirit" is a myth; few people are involved even in local politics. Almost nobody in America trusts the public at large to conduct national affairs—and this includes the public itself. As one focus group participant put it: "We have avenues to contact our representatives; we just choose not to."

Americans, Hibbing believes, desire a managerial Congress that will look after the public welfare so the public doesn’t have to. Many seem to think that every political problem has a commonsense solution, blocked only by the influence of special interests.

That is the key to the public’s discontent. Many Americans are convinced that legislators act primarily for their own benefit, perhaps to line their own pockets and certainly to ensure their reelection. Surveys demonstrate that Americans "are too cynical to believe that any individual who is granted decision-making power will be able to resist the occasional self-serving act." The Supreme Court, on the other hand, consistently ranks as the most respected branch of the federal government because people believe that "the justices do not benefit materially from the decisions they make."

If Hibbing is correct, restoring faith in Congress may prove more difficult than previously imagined. He favors campaign finance reform, term limits, lower congressional salaries, and a "firewall" between legislators and special-interest lobbies, but he is not optimistic that such measures will help much. As long as Americans interpret even honest political disagreements on Capitol Hill in the worst possible light, the public’s faith will be perpetually undermined.

More From This Issue