The Super Committee’s recent failure to reach a budget deal created a glut of anger and cynicism around the country. People are profoundly exasperated that even the most commonsensical measures are stymied at every turn in Congress. They roundly curse our representatives as incompetent, spineless, or even traitors who willfully betray their constituents and the nation at large.
Those people need to get over themselves, to get off their high horse, and to confront the reality of what our republic actually is, not what they think it is. All this requires is a thoughtful examination of three things: Who are our leaders? What challenges do they face in Congress? What challenges do they face at home?
While many of our representatives come from the business and legal communities – because these occupations provide people with the skills, resources, and responsibilities that translate into success in politics – few come from longstanding political dynasties or wealthy families. Most of them come from ordinary backgrounds shared by many Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is the son of a miner and grew up in a house without an indoor toilet or telephone. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was one of 11 children and tended the family bar as a young man. I interned in the House in the fall of 2010 and worked for Rep. Chris Carney (D-Penn.), who was a community college professor and naval reserve officer until he was called up to serve after 9/11, served as an intelligence officer in the DOD, and later took his concerns to Congress. Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.), who replaced him in the 2010 Republican sweep, is a guy who became a lawyer after a midlife crisis, during which he realized he was stuck in a dead-end manufacturing job.
Congress is filled with people like this. They are as smart or ignorant as any American and, like all Americans, few outside of the most partisan apparatchiks are selfish enough to willfully court national destruction for short-term political gains.
Our representatives then go out and work in an institution built on gathering a consensus about the problems afflicting our republic and the best ways to resolve them. Except for in the House, where a simple majority vote can pass a measure, there is little done by fiat. If they’re lucky, they can simply put in the time calling up their fellow congressmen or passing around “Dear Colleague” letters to build support for their initiatives. If unlucky, they have to deal with people who hold worldviews diametrically opposed to their own and wade through arguments where everybody talks past each other.
As everyone knows from personal experience, other people do hold substantially different views, and they don’t “just” come to their sense and agree with everything you believe. Yet somehow, we condemn our leaders for sometimes failing to reach an agreement when we ourselves almost never succeed either. Disappointment with their failure is an appropriate reaction; hatred is not.
As it is, our representatives also work under incredibly grueling conditions. They frequently work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. while on the Hill, fly back home every weekend to visit the family they haven’t seen in days for a few hours, and then spend the rest of their time meeting with constituents. As harried as they are, it is a miracle that they know as much about the issues as they do and do not kill each other every day on the House or Senate floor. Many foreign parliaments are far less civil.
Moreover, our representatives come from our country’s communities and to those communities they will return. The recent budget talks involve policies that, regardless of the position a politician takes, will leave many of their constituents - their own neighbors - very angry. They will hear that anger every day as they buy groceries, take their kids to school, fill their car with gas, or mow their lawns out front. This anger may even cost them close friends and will follow them after they leave office.
Consequently, every vote, especially a controversial one, presents a risk to politicians far beyond their jobs alone. How casually would any of us tempt the visceral disapproval of everyone who knows us? Few of us would ever do this, except maybe in our fantasies, yet we ask this of our leaders every single day. The willingness of our leaders to serve, to right the wrongs they see in our society despite the great personal costs that may result, deserves some of our respect and praise, regardless of our opinion of the individual in office.
Consequently, we must approach analyzing politics with a mature mindset. Our representatives are human too, and humans can fail at hard tasks as difficult as the budget talks. Victory was not ensured; defeat not impossible. Few people think of our representatives as gods or heroes, but many still expect them to perform miracles. For failures like the Super Committee's, blame should be put on the select few responsible, and disappointment reserved for the rest, but hatred and vitriol should have no place in public life - regardless of the targets - if the nature of our national conversation is to improve.
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