A startling NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (January 22-24, 2012) indicates that 80 percent of Americans disapprove the job performance of Congress. Indeed, attitudes about government generally, whether Congress, the President, cabinet departments or agencies, are generally unfavorable. Research work conducted by Public Works Partners www.publicworkspartners.net illuminates a bit more of the truth behind these figures.
The first observation is that attitudes about government tend to reflect a distant institution dimly understood. More importantly, government is immediately equated with contentious partisan politics, with taxation and with services delivered to customers much like candy bars are dispensed from a vending machine.
The good news is that at a deeper level government and citizenship are valued. Government is viewed favorably as a vehicle for collective action such as national defense. It also provides systems and structures that benefit society as a whole such as courts and a unified currency.
The paradox is that we value government but despise the political process. A survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press finds that when it comes to Congress the problem with the institution is the members themselves, not the political system. In assessing Congress, 55% of the public says they think the system can work fine; it’s the members that are the problem (http://bit.ly/uEax4S).
This is nothing new of course. The citizenry have been supporting their government but hating their public decision making process since the founding of the Republic. The ink on the U.S. Constitution was not yet dry when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay began papering citizens in the State of New York with the essays that we know collectively today as The Federalist Papers. (http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html)
At the founding, the need for government was an accepted principle. “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers,” wrote Jay in Federalist #2.
But once past that basic hurdle, things get messy; the passions of individuals play upon the system. Madison in Federalist #10 reminds us, “Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens . . . that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
The political process is all about “faction;” the interests of one group of persons as compared to another group of persons. Madison gives full voice to matters about factions in Federalist #10. “A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” This is to say, disharmony is unavoidable in a free society.
Politics is the art of the possible; of compromise. As such, some will always be disaffected. But the words of John Jay in Federalist #2 can help today’s elected policy makers focus on the values citizens place on the basic institutions of government. “A strong sense of the value and blessings of union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it. They formed it almost as soon as they had a political existence; nay, at a time when their habitations were in flames, [and] when many of their citizens were bleeding.”
Local government leaders are political creatures. But to the extent that they can articulate the value and significance of governmental systems and structures, their efforts to instill strong attachments of citizenship and participation in decision making will be rewarded.