Asked about a variety of major American institutions, the public doesn’t have confidence in much. Banks, unions, the media, big business all fared quite poorly in Gallup’s latest report in the institutions in which Americans have faith.
But they all fared far better than Congress.
Americans’ current confidence in Congress is not only the lowest on record, but also the lowest Gallup has recorded for any institution in the 41-year trend. This is also the first time Gallup has ever measured confidence in a major U.S. institution in the single digits. Currently, 4% of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in Congress, and 3% have quite a lot of confidence.
When lawmakers are asked about surveys like these, they’ll sometimes respond that Congress has always been unpopular. And that’s true; it has. But since the dawn of modern polling, we’ve never seen numbers quite this bad.
Justin Wolfers, in an amusing letter to Congress, wrote, “Every year I keep thinking things can’t get worse, but then you disappoint me again. How much longer can this go on?”
I’ve wondered the same thing. Given Congress’ lack of support, it’s tempting to think voters would be eager to make drastic changes to the branch of government that seemed to stop functioning in January 2011. Congress is working less, accomplishing less, ignoring the public’s priorities, and routinely killing legislation with broad public support. It’s a recipe for electoral volatility.
And yet, the vast majority of incumbents aren’t worried about losing. The radicalized House is unlikely to change hands in the foreseeable future, despite the institution’s futility, and if there’s a major change coming to the Senate, it will reward the unpopular party the blocks popular proposals.
In his letter to Congress, Wolfers added:
Think back to June 2012, when only 13 percent of Americans expressed confidence in you; yet only a few months later, we decided to stay together, re-electing over 90 percent of those who ran.My therapist calls it an abusive relationship; my political scientist calls it Fenno’s Paradox: Even if I don’t like you as a whole, I love the small part of you that comes from my district. It’s that love that keeps us together. I know you’ll continue to treat me badly, but I don’t see any other option.I don’t blame you. After all, if I don’t really tell you what I want, how would you know to act any other way? I know that you could be better; I just give you no reason to try. The failure’s all mine. Sweetie, it’s not you, it’s me.
Gerrymandered districts and concentrated partisan populations create a dynamic in which one party can get far more votes but win far fewer seats – which is exactly what we’re seeing now, following the 2012 elections in which Democratic House candidates won about 1.5 million more votes than Republican House candidates.
Complicating matters, Democratic voters just don’t seem to like showing up in midterm cycles, making it that much easier for voters to reward Republicans for failure.
Regardless, Congress keeps getting worse, and it’s support keeps reaching new depths, but the prospects for change appear remote, at best.