That is a segment from last night’s All In with Ezra Klein sitting in for Chris Hayes. It was called Congress: Less Popular Than Head Lice? It is based upon a Washington Post–ABC News poll that found that not only is Congress unpopular, but for the fist time, a majority of people say that they are unhappy with the job their own representatives are doing. This is news because normally people hate Congress but love their Congress members. Now I’m going to explain why none of this matters.
Let me start with some statistics that Klein provides later in the segment. In a NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll of Americans: 71% say the country is headed in the wrong direction; 60% described the country as in a state of decline; 76% are not confident their children’s generation will be better off than their own. These statistics mean pretty much nothing. The last one isn’t quite so bad because it implies economic conditions, but even it isn’t explicit. Overall, these are the vaguest of questions.
What does it mean that the country is headed in the wrong direction? What direction is that? I agree: the country is headed in the wrong direction. By that, I mean that we are headed toward ever more inequality which is destroying our democracy. But other people think the country is headed in the wrong direction because women don’t wear dresses anymore and minorities demand things like voting rights. Similarly, is the country in decline? I say yes! But I say this because, like all empires, we are focused on our military and maintaining our power instead of just doing the work of the people and trying to make everyone’s life better. But other people think the country is in decline because same sex marriage is becoming a national right and woman can still get birth control pills.
This same dynamic is going on with the polls about Congress. I don’t like Congress because the House is controlled by the Republicans, the Senate can largely be ground to a halt by the Republicans, and many of the Democrats in both chambers are far too conservative and timid for my tastes. But your average Fox News viewer would say, “I don’t like Congress because Republicans in the House voted with Democrats to raise the Debt Ceiling.” About the only thing that historically low approval of Congress means is that the Republicans have been so good at blocking everything that low-information voters just have a vague idea that Congress isn’t doing much.
The statistic about being unhappy with our own representatives is different. But it is no more meaningful. It is a cliche, but it is true: politics is the art of the possible. The question on the ballot is never the choice between a real candidate and some idealized candidate who does everything exactly as you want. The question on the ballot is two candidates, each with their own flaws and each who will disappoint us once they are serving. Consider that Obama’s low 40% approval rating is about the same as it was going into the 2012 presidential race—which he won.
In addition to this, I wonder just how much this disapproval of “my own representatives” is driven by the relentless push of conservative media that everything is terrible and if the Republicans in Congress would just stand up to Obama and crash the global economy, everything would be perfect. In other words, I’d like to know if all the extra discontentment isn’t coming primarily from the right. In case you haven’t noticed, it is primarily conservatives who are always complaining that everything is going to hell—you know, the ones who love the country and are so patriotic:
There’s something else very interesting in this segment. The people overall dislike the Republicans in Congress a whole lot more than the Democrats. But they are pretty much evenly split over who they want to control Congress. Now, those stats are from two different polls, so you never know. But apparently the reason it is so different between who the people blame for the problems and who they want to be in control is that they want the Republicans to be a check on Obama’s power. (This is madness, as I explained yesterday, Republican Delusion Empowers Obama.) These are the same people who claim they are upset that nothing gets done in Washington. But when given the chance to elect a Congress that would get things done, they decide it is best to vote for a check against that Kenyan socialist in the White House.
The bottom line is that none of these polls actually mean anything other than that the economy sucks and so people are unhappy. Anything else they demonstrate (like the irrationality of people) has long been established.