Members of Congress are engaged in a tragedy of the commons. It is in each member’s electoral interest to rail against the ineptitude of government and to run “against Washington.” This is frequently a successful strategy for an individual member. But it is a disaster for the standing of the institution in the public mind.
There arguably is no existential problem while the government and Congress continue to enjoy the tacit, if disillusioned, support of the American people. But it is hubris to think this will continue forever when 99 out of 100 messages each American hears decry the competence and honesty of Washington. No major poll taken in 2011 has found more than 30 percent of Americans giving Congress a favorable job rating and several, including Gallup, showed ratings in the teens.
With the foundation of trust corroded, we risk the public having no faith in Congress’s capacity to represent the people’s interests in the event of a national emergency such as a new financial debacle or major terrorist attack. At that crucial juncture, with their trust in Congress so low, would Americans turn to their representatives and senators to meet their critical needs for physical and economic safety? Alternatives that might seem more expedient from either the executive branch or fringe non-government actors would lead to more authoritarian, centralized government or to political and social disorder. Either would be a tragedy for representative democracy.
One of the ways by which Democrats and Republicans deflect criticism of themselves and the two-party system is by equating their most catastrophic failures and limitations with those of government as such. The unwillingness or inability of Republicans and Democrats to represent the interests of the people – over, say, the interests of corporations – is framed not as a result of their individual, intentional acts, but rather as a failure of representative, democratic-republican government itself. Discontent with the Democratic and Republican parties is transformed into discontent with republicanism and democracy! What should be a justified crisis of confidence in the ruling parties becomes a crisis of confidence in the very form of representative government itself. From an opinion piece in the Washington Post by the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Management Foundation, on "Congress's tragedy of the commons":