One cannot constantly attack an institution and expect that institution to function.
If the only thing anyone hears about a place is how awful it is, and if the only thing anyone hears about those who work there is how corrupt and incompetent they are, then all anyone will believe is that the place and its people are awful, incompetent, and corrupt. Places like that tend to attract bad people, and tend to be shunned by the good. One reason Luke and Obi-wan went to Mos Eisley Spaceport to find a smuggler to get them off Tatooine is because smugglers are attracted to hives of scum and villainy. Good people go there at their peril.
One reason the American people loathe Congress is because a lot of Members of Congress tell the American people how loathsome the place is. Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) even has a new book in which he argues the American people don’t loathe Congress enough. Washington, so the political trope goes, is a swamp desperately in need of draining. Setting aside the fact that swamps are actually good, and draining them can have disastrous consequences, there are real reasons to stop the relentless attacks on the greatest governing idea in history.
Americans have always distrusted politicians. Mark Twain spent a lot of time reminding readers that politicians were inherently corrupt and the IMDB description of the 1939 classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” reads: “A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn’t back down.” It is also worth noting that as bad as the political environment feels now, it has been worse — the Civil War comes to mind.
Our constitutional republic has always managed to more or less thrive, even as running down those who run it has been a national pastime. But the formal and informal structures that allowed our nation to grow and become more democratic are under assault as never before. Congressional districts are increasingly polarized, one result of which is that Representatives are punished for bipartisan cooperation and rewarded for ranting at the political opposition rather than working with their colleagues for common purpose. Earmarks have largely been banned, giving those in Washington trying to forge compromise fewer tools with which to work to get the job done. Members of Congress spend as little time in Washington as possible, one result of which is that they rarely have the chance to develop the personal relationships with their colleagues that are necessary to work together. And because all media are always on all the time right now, there is little incentive to pause, consider, and reflect. The urge is to react rather than respond, to rant back at rather than reply to.
Our healthy skepticism of those who occupy our democratic institutions has largely been replaced by an unmitigated assumption of corruption. This assumption is being fostered by those who want to occupy our democratic institutions — and who then express shock and frustration that those institutions don’t work and that no one trusts them.
This has to stop.
Congress is less than perfect because we, as people, are less than perfect. But democracy is also more good than bad because we, as people, are more good than bad. Our system assumes that though less than perfect, we can get better. Congress is flawed, but worth celebrating. Members of Congress and those running for Congress are similarly flawed, and similarly worth honoring. Democracy relies on a sense of optimism about the people who participate in it.
Democracy requires we trust each other, and that we be trustworthy. It requires us to be respectful, and worthy of respect. It requires us to be honorable, and worthy of honor. These requirements cannot be enforced by law. These requirements must be embodied by all of us in a democratic system because the system relies on them. If our leaders do not express respect for the institutions in which they work or want to work, and if those leaders do not express respect for each other, the institutions will dissolve.
Running for office is difficult and in many ways miserable. The only reason to go through the process is to govern, to advance our shared national agenda, to make ours a “more perfect union.” Those who run for office should of course point out corruption where they see it, and clearly say what they will do to fight that corruption. In doing so, they should point out that our governing institutions not only can be improved, but are worthy of improvement. Candidates should note that our domestic democratic cause is a noble one, that those who engage in it are engaging in a noble effort, and that on balance are themselves noble.
People defined as beyond redemption tend to behave in ways that fulfill the prophesy of failure. Institutions made up of those people are no different. If the American people and those who represent them do not believe that our system is at its core good, and that those who work in it by and large themselves good, we will prove them right and our democracy will be no more.