The conclusion of the shutdown episode has brought a flurry of analysis and harsh criticism of Congress. But there’s something missing in it all. As tempting as it might sound to fire all of our elected leaders, it isn’t just Congress who needs to step up to avoid another government shutdown. It’s our responsibility too.
As Americans, we are complicit in these fiscal-cliff theatrics unless we make every effort to sift through the rhetoric and inform ourselves.
Underlying it all is the paradox brought to light by political scientist Richard Fenno. Americans tend to hate Congress but love their own representative or senator. This explains reelection rates of over 90 percent while congressional approval ratings hover below 10 percent.
Some of this paradox can be explained by “home style,” Fenno’s phrase that describes how congressmen are able to connect with locals while bringing pet projects and money to their districts. But, to some degree, our consistent reelection of our leaders means they reflect our beliefs rather well.
If this is the case, then, perhaps our leaders are not the whole problem. The hyper-partisan divides and intransigence in Washington are symbolic of our own political preferences. As citizens, community members, friends, and family members, we have a responsibility to listen to dissenting points of view. To extend the thinking of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, if we are not able to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” how can we expect our leaders to do so?
There is no doubt that some in Washington are only concerned about personal glory, the presidential election, or name recognition. These leaders hold only one sacred principle, allowing personal success to trump accurate representation. However, the duty then falls to us to hold them accountable. It may be difficult, but it is not impossible to vote out an incumbent leader who fails to reflect the true principles of the American people they represent.
Therefore, it is increasingly more important that we make sure our own principles are in the right place. “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible,” Abraham Lincoln famously said. If our principles become specific policies or agendas on which we refuse to concede, we achieve only deadlock and another shutdown. However, if our principles are grounded in reflection and thoughtful consideration, we will refrain from treating others as if their opinions are inherently worthless or laughable.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t join a side. Parties can prove to be valuable sources of political information, and independents are hardly examples of wise, discerning people. Multiple studies have demonstrated that independents are less-informed politically than those who align themselves with a specific party.
But when four of ten people can’t tell you whether Obamacare is a law and others claim they like the Affordable Care Act better than Obamacare (hint – they’re the same), there’s a problem. Simply repeating talking points without doing any research of your own will only entrench the congressmen who refuse to compromise. If you avoid political discussion with those you disagree with, our leaders will do the same.
If we want to avoid another shutdown and promote responsibility in Congress, we have to step up too. Our leaders won’t start talking about the real problems until we do.