WASHINGTON – Hey, fed-up Americans, here’s a scary thought after the dispiriting spectacle of the government shutdown: You’re the ones who sent these members of Congress to Washington, and they really are a reflection of you.
For all the complaints about Washington, it was American groupthink that produced divided government in the past two elections and a Congress that has been tied in knots lately.
John Adams, who would become the country’s second president, wrote in 1776 that legislators “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large.”
More than 200 years later, members of the current entangled House “are probably a very accurate reflection of how their constituents feel,” says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
Not that people are ready to take ownership of the failings of their representatives.
“Of course not,” says Baker. “It’s a completely dissociative view of American politics – that somehow there are these grasping, corrupt, tone-deaf politicians in Washington who are totally unconnected to the caring and attentive, compassionate person” that an individual voter has elected to Congress.
With the government now powering back up to full speed and the next budget crisis pushed off at least until January, there is no shortage of speculation about whether voters will retaliate in the 2014 elections against lawmakers for this fall’s budget impasse. A lot depends on how the next year goes.
President Barack Obama is expressing hope that the same spirit that ultimately produced a deal to end the shutdown and avert default will allow the country to make progress on other issues such as improving the immigration system.
“If we disagree on something, we can move on and focus on the things we agree on, and get some stuff done,” Obama said Thursday.
But the president acknowledged difficulties ahead, what with the challenges of divided government and pressures from the political extremes.
“And,” Obama added, “let’s face it. The American people don’t see every issue the same way.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has pledged to continue GOP efforts to “stop the train wreck” that he calls the president’s health law.
For now at least, public sentiment toward Obama, congressional leaders and Congress in general is grim.
Nearly three-quarters of voters want to see most members of Congress defeated, a much higher level than at the same point prior to the 2006 and 2010 elections in which control of the House changed hands, according to the Pew Research Center. Also, Pew reports, the share of voters who want to see their own representative replaced is as high as it’s been in two decades, at 38 percent.
Republican pollster David Winston says it’s particularly notable that voters of all stripes are increasingly saying that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
In a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 22 percent of those surveyed said the country was heading in the right direction and 78 percent said the wrong direction. That’s a pretty stark change from shortly after Obama’s re-election last fall, when 42 percent said right direction and 50 percent said wrong direction.
“One of the things that tells you is that the public is paying very close attention,” says Winston. “The challenge for everybody — this is true for both parties — is to understand that every word they’re saying is being listened to closely.”
Yet for all of the public’s grousing about polarized politicians, the voters themselves are deeply divided, too. They sort themselves geographically and ideologically. Congressional district boundaries are drawn to accentuate those political divisions.
When legislators answer to such solidly Republican or Democratic constituencies, they are more prone to engage in divisive antics such as those seen in recent weeks.
“We really are a red and blue nation,” says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann. “We separate ourselves. We tend to associate with people who think like we do.”
The result, he says, is “more and more separation of Democrats and Republicans with distinctive sets of values and world views and then an attachment — almost a tribalistic attachment — to party that leads them to accept whatever the party position seems to be.”
Winston thinks voters still have an expectation, though, that their legislators can find a way to both represent their constituents’ views and effectively govern.
“It’s not so much polarization, it’s just that there are real differences of opinion,” he says. “How do you work through that and create policy that both sides feel is moving things forward?”
Democratic pollster Peter Hart, too, thinks people still expect their legislators to find constructive solutions to the country’s problems. He expects them to make that clear in the 2014 elections.
Says Hart: “My guess is that overall, there will be more change, more volatility, because this manufactured crisis made voters lose faith in the system and recognize that it just did not have to happen.”
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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