I recently attended a town hall meeting with one of my representatives, a progressive who largely impressed me. They were preaching to the choir, a liberal audience grateful to be told they weren’t alone in today’s political landscape.
One of the few sticking points arose when audience members criticized Congress as a whole. Aside from pointing out a few policy misconceptions we had, our representative made what seemed to me an astute point: The overgeneralizing and emotionally laden statements we all make about Congress play right into the hands of the opposition.
Okay, so the current version of the Right wants to eliminate government, yes? It resists taxation, single-payer health care, corporate regulations, environmental regulations, firearm regulations, most any kind of regulations–well, other than those on women’s bodies and the violent kind a militarized police impose on minorities and immigrants. Politicians now run and win strictly on criticizing Congress and/or the entire concept of government, demonizing the first as a vague group of corrupt egotists (everyone except your own representatives, of course, people you know who are just doing their best by their constituents) and the second as an endless bureaucracy of faceless workers who don’t deserve their cushy jobs and are just getting in the way of your life (never mind your cousin the underfunded public school teacher or the fact that someone has to authorize your Medicare benefits). These politicians promise to come in as questionably defined “outsiders” who will shake things up, and they win. A lot.
The current president ran almost exclusively on this platform, all criticism of the establishment and few fully-formed policy suggestions. As we’ve seen, constituents hearing such rhetoric will in fact excuse a multitude of sins, even evidence that the politician is effectively part of the “establishment” (say, someone from a liberal city, born into wealth, with many powerful connections) or is himself benefiting from a lack of governmental oversight to the likely detriment of those same constituents (making personal business deals with foreign governments or using federal funds to pay rent on property he owns). Running against government is a winning strategy, as is continuing to dismantle it once you’re in power, because no one will be able to stop you from further using your money and connections to benefit yourself and others like you.
So what happens when those same politicians are involved in scandals? We don’t just say “ooh, that guy was the worst” or “giving people unregulated power is dangerous”, we say “Congress is awful.” Let me say that again: When someone who is actively trying to destroy our government to benefit themselves does something embarrassing or terrible, we imply that our system of government is irredeemably messed up. We grouse about it, looking for an “outsider” to come in and shake things up. And you know what? If those outsiders were all Bernie-style socialists looking for more regulation–thoughtful growth of the system–our loose words might be fine, but in this climate they further encourage voters to support the “government is bad” people. The people who want to eliminate regulations to their own advantage.
What’s the alternative? I’d say “A system in which [Politician] can do [that terrible thing] is messed up, and we need more regulation to prevent such acts in the future.” It’s not about censoring ourselves, it’s about being precise and accurate with our responses, saying exactly what we mean and not spewing our emotional frustration and stopping there. (And if you do believe in destroying the current system, then congratulations, it’s happening–but given the hands doing it, good luck getting a new system you like better.)
You don’t have to like that. You can say “it’s my right to make blanket condemnations of The Powers That Be” and “the establishment really is doing a shit job”. You wouldn’t be wrong, and no one’s stopping you. In fact, they’ll egg you on. And then they’ll vote for the next billionaire who promises to shake things up.