I am not an inveterate poll-watcher; any procedure that purports to accurately assay the moods and proclivities of a very large population by sampling a very small portion of said population is, in my opinion, automatically and seriously suspect. Yeah, yeah, I know that all the statisticians and PR gurus perorate frenetically and produce charts and formulas and arcane equations to prove that their results are utterly dependable and eminently deserving of the highest degree of confidence – well, maybe ….
You youngsters out there will not remember the polling fiascos that had Alf Landon soundly trouncing FDR in 1936, and, of course, the famous Dewey win over Truman in 1948. In a more current vein, the TV networks (who depend on complex statistical polling models) in 2000 called the presidential race first for Al Gore, then for George Bush, and finally for no candidate! And remember how confidently the polls predicted that Barack Obama would thrash Hillary Clinton by 8 per cent in the 2008 New Hampshire primary? Hill-baby won by more than 3 per cent. Yee-haw. Nuff said.
Having said all that, I will confess that there is one poll that I occasionally glance at, as it seems to incorporate at least a sliver of common sense – it is a poll of polls, and can be found on the Real Clear Politics website. They average the results of several polls (some 14 or 15, I think), covering the entire political/ideological spectrum, and their results tend to comport with reality a fair amount of the time.
Squirreled away in all of RCP’s data and graphs is the (understatement alert) unsurprising fact that the American public’s opinion of their elected representatives (i.e., Congress) is somewhere south of abysmal. Joe and Melanie Sixpack’s approval of their federal legislature currently hovers somewhere in the first (!) decile – for the mathematically malnourished, that means less than 10% of the polity would even bother to spit on a rep or senator if they were on fire. Zounds! How can this be? I mean, somebody must have voted for these droobs – they got into office somehow.
What is it about our Congress-critters that arouses so much vitriol in the electorate? A partial, perhaps primary, answer can be found, I submit, in the ideas of Dr. John Marini, a poli sci prof at the University of Nevada-Reno. In a recent lecture Marini contends that all three branches of the federal government have essentially abdicated their respective responsibilities in favor of becoming part of what he calls the administrative state. This is especially noticeable (and egregious) with the US Congress, since that august body is supposed to be the firmest link to the people.
“The Great Society marked the beginning of an expansion of the federal government and a centralization of political and administrative power in Washington that had long been the domain of local and state governments. In addition to destroying the fabric of federalism, this centralization had the effect of undermining the separation of powers, making it difficult if not impossible for Congress, the president, and the bureaucracy to function amicably in pursuit of a national interest.”
He goes on to trace the evolution of the “administrative state” from its roots in the Progressive movement at the turn of the century, when the Progressives then in power (think Woodrow Wilson), were
“openly hostile to the Constitution … because it provided almost no role for the federal government in the area of administration. The separation of powers of government into three branches—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial—inhibited the creation of a unified will and made it impossible to establish a technical administrative apparatus to carry out that will,”
So they decided that politics as then practiced in this fair land was totally inadequate (the Founder’s vision notwithstanding) and required replacement by an administrative system manned with “neutral and highly-trained experts.” Hence a robust movement away from the constraints and ideals of the Constitution was soon entrained, picked up steam through the Roosevelt years and barreled Code-4 into the 60’s.
Sometime around LBJ’s Great Society, Congress noticed this new governing paradigm and determined that it was easier and more advantageous (to itself) to become an integral part of the “administrative state” mechanism rather than attempt to legislatively carry out the will of increasingly complex and willful constituencies, and re-arranged itself accordingly. Thus the concept of separation of powers as well as the entire federal system was fundamentally altered. Again, Marini:
“Members of Congress soon came to prefer administration and regulation to deliberation and legislation.”
“The function of the judiciary was transformed as well; in the administrative state, the bureaucracy has no constitutional authority, but it is given enormous power by the political branches. Consequently, the courts have been required to enter the policymaking arena, as the final arbiters in the adjudication of cases arising in the administrative process.”
Simply stated, Congress has reorganized itself to become not a legislative body, but one devoted almost entirely to administrative oversight (a “collection of committees’). They are, in the main, no longer interested in governing in the traditional Constitutional republic manner within which they were conceived, but rather as an oligarchic goon squad with little or no responsibility for their actions (or inactions), and possessing almost unlimited authority to promote and protect the interests of the almighty administrative state.
I think the American citizenry, though often slow to anger and react, has figured out Congress’ poltroonish behavior, perhaps at an almost subliminal level, and their antipathy is manifested by the above-mentioned subterranean (and ever-descending) poll numbers.
Marini is gloomy about the future, especially with regard to Congress:
“In summary, Congress has become a major player in the administrative state precisely by surrendering its constitutional purpose and ceasing to defend limited government. As a result, the administrative state has grown dramatically since 1965, and it only continues to defend and expand its turf. Political opposition occasionally arises in the White House or in Congress, but thus far with little effect.”
“Until either the administrative state or the Constitution is definitively delegitimized, the battle within both government and the electorate over the size and scope of the federal government—including government shutdowns and showdowns over the debt limit—will inevitably continue.”
Personally, I think Marini is overly optimistic.