With issues like the debt ceiling and the sequestration of government, people seem to have lost faith in American government—most notably Congress. A 2013 November Gallup poll, “Congress and the Public,” found that nine percent of people thought that Congress was doing a good job. Even today, only 15 percent of people think that Congress is acting in a satisfactory manner, according to another Gallup poll. If approval rates are so low, why are so many incumbent congressmen still running for office?
Even if Congress were to pass new laws, its approval rating would only be around 50 percent. The American populace is relatively evenly split into political parties, as evidenced by the 2012 popular vote; Barack Obama only defeated Mitt Romney by 51 to 47 percent according to U.S. Election Atlas—not exactly a thumping majority. Half of all Americans would disapprove of most legislation passed by Congress. This dissatisfaction is not necessarily present because Congress is not acting, but rather because it is not acting in the direction prefered by whomever was polled. This explains the fact that Republican Ted Cruz is the most popular politician in Texas, with 47 percent of voters approving of him and 35 percent disapproving— according to Public Policy Polling “Cruz is the most popular politician in Texas.” Although he is reviled outside of Texas for hampering progress and contributing to the government shut down, his constituents, who oppose Obamacare, obviously support him for fighting against it—no matter what he does in that pursuit.
Although the American population is about half Democrat and half Republican, there are some issues that a majority of Americans support. In theory, these issues at least should be resolved, even if Congress is otherwise polarized. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 90 percent of American citizens were in favor of stricter gun control laws according to “Poll: 9 in 10 Americans STILL support gun background checks,” by Trymaine Lee of MSNBC. Some members of Congress even changed their stances—Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat who received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, which regarded him as a “solidly pro-gun candidate including voting record,” sponsored a bill with Republican Senator Pat Toomey to strengthen background checks after the Sandy Hook massacre. Everything seemed to be in place—there was bipartisan cooperation and a wide majority of Americans in favor of stronger gun control.
Unfortunately, the bill did not pass, and the NRA targeted Manchin with attack ads—one of the main reasons that no legislation was passed to strengthen gun control despite the vast majority of the public supporting measures in that direction. Big money limits the ability of legislators to be bipartisan, forcing them to vote only for specific legislation—or else lose funding.
The Citizens United ruling has only exacerbated the issue. Wealthy industrialists, such as the Koch Brothers, can single-handedly mastermind elections by gathering funds from donors who need not be named and flooding airwaves and mailboxes with negative messages punishing uncooperative legislators. These actions eliminate one of the solutions to stalemate today: more bold legislators.
The public mood is a fickle master; in 2001, the “Afghanistan” Gallup poll showed that nine percent of Americans believed that invading Afghanistan was a bad idea. In 2014, that number has jumped to 48 percent. Unfortunately, these bold legislators cannot do much to align their policies with public opinion for if they try to go against their benefactors, they could immediately receive a huge negative backlash from the media for their efforts. The old guard of entrenched incumbent congressmen and senators could take up the mantle and use their established bases of support and large networks to make responsible decisions to better the country and that is ultimately the key to change the course that our government has taken, a course which allows big money corporations to control public policy. Though it is not necessarily the responsibility of the corporations to acknowledge public opinion, as their sole focus is often just to make money, it would do good to show some decency in understanding the wants and needs of those that may not have all the wealth in the world. And who knows? Maybe supporting the public in the long run will be to their own benefit. On the other side, our representatives must also take the initiative to resist the hold that these large corporations have on them. When it’s clear that the majority of the public desires one thing, congressmen should not be afraid to act in their favor; after all, we’ve got their back.
Ideally, the long-term approval from the U.S. population is more important and would more than outweigh the influence and money politicians get from their benefactors. However, if corporations and attack ads continue to dominate politics, Congress will make slow progress.