I often write on how America has changed in my lifetime. Someday I will focus on the ways it has changed for the better.
But for now, to paraphrase a classic song from “The Sound of Music,” I must ask, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Congress?”
According to TIME magazine, in 1958 the Gallup poll asked Americans if they trusted the government. A whopping 73% said yes. Imagine that!
In 1958, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. Democrats controlled the House and Senate, and Rep. Sam Rayburn of Texas was speaker of the House. In today’s volatile political environment, this would result in total gridlock. Yet lawmakers from both parties regularly passed bipartisan laws that kept America moving forward.
For instance, interstate highway construction. Can you even imagine today’s politicians agreeing to fund a project of that magnitude? In 2021, President Biden scored a big win with his infrastructure bill, but only because his party controlled both Houses.
We enjoy the benefits of interstate highways because of one word: “compromise.” President Eisenhower and Speaker Rayburn often spoke about the difficult negotiations that eventually led to an agreement. Don’t look for a repeat of that any time soon. We are stuck in neutral, and many Americans are perfectly satisfied. A recent Atlanta Journal Constitution poll shows that only 54% of Georgia residents think compromise is important among our elected officials. In fact, 48% of Georgia Republicans prefer that their leaders “stick to their principles” compared to only 40% who support compromise.
But getting back to 1958, it was also a time of great optimism. That long running TV nostalgia-fest wasn’t called “Happy Days” for nothing. That’s when we believed the sky was the limit (literally when it came to the space program).
We were building houses, buying televisions and cars, and it seemed like the manufacturing jobs would go on forever. No wonder 73% of us were pleased with the government.
When it comes to confidence in today’s government, we’ve come a long way baby, but it’s the wrong way. The 2023 Gallup poll tells us that only 20% of Americans feel good about our government, a new historic low.
It’s also why social media is filled with Americans saying, “Vote them all out!” Yet every two years, when we are given the opportunity to “clean out” the House of Representatives, we do just the opposite.
It is not unusual for 98% of our Rrepresentatives to be re-elected in any given election cycle. The old saying is true: we hate Congress, but we love our congressman. Creative gerrymandering and the financial advantages of being an incumbent make it almost impossible to oust a sitting representative. And since they all vote along party lines, when one decides to step down, they are replaced by a clone who just votes “yea” or “nay” based on the orders from their party leaders. It’s getting to the point where a candidate’s name, background, and qualifications are meaningless (see George Santos). Voters could just check “D” or “R” and the results would be the same.
Another rule from America’s bygone days is also fading away. Remember “two wrongs don’t make a right?” It sure made sense back then. “Why did you make fun of Louella’s shoes?” “Well, yesterday she made fun of my hair!”
Many good parents and teachers convinced us not to stoop to Louella’s level. We could be better than that.
But when new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, was quizzed about some questionable committee assignments, he opted not to defend his choices. Instead he said, “Well, the Democrats did it too,” even after repeatedly telling us that Democrats are bad. “They did it to us, so we’re doing it to them.”
It’s the same answer I got from a Tennessee Republican legislator when I asked about gerrymandering. A state that votes 40% Democratic now has only 11% Democratic representation in the House. He explained, “I know it’s wrong, but the Democrats would do the same thing to us if they could.”
Two wrongs still don’t make a right. Unless of course we’re talking our dysfunctional government and its 20% approval rating.
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