by Robert Reich
An old friend who has been active in politics for more than thirty years tells me he’s giving up. “I can’t stomach what’s going on in Washington anymore,” he says. “The hell with all of them. I have better things to do with my life.”
My friend is falling exactly into the trap that the extreme right wants all of us to fall into — such disgust and cynicism that we all give up on politics. Then they’re free to take over everything.
Republicans blame the shutdown of Washington and possible default on the nation’s debt on the President’s “unwillingness to negotiate” over the Affordable Care Act. But that law has already been negotiated. It passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the President. It withstood a Supreme Court challenge.
The Act is hardly perfect, but neither was Social Security or Medicare when first enacted. The Constitution allows Congress to amend or delay laws that don’t work as well as they were intended, or even to repeal them. But to do any of this requires new legislation – including a majority of both houses of Congress and a president’s signature (or else a vote to override a president’s veto).
Our system does not allow one party to delay, amend, or repeal a law of the land by shutting down the rest of the government until its demands are met. If that were the way our democracy worked, no law would ever be safe or settled. A disciplined majority in one house could always use the threat of a shutdown or default to gut any law it didn’t like.
So the President cannot re-negotiate the Affordable Care Act. And I don’t believe Tea Bag Republicans expect him to.
Their real goal is far more insidious. They want to sow even greater cynicism about the capacity of government to do much of anything. The shutdown and possible default are only the most recent and most dramatic instances of terminal gridlock, designed to get people like my friend to give up.
And on this score, they’re winning. Congress’s approval rating was already at an all-time low before the shutdown, according to a poll released just hours before Washington went dark. TheCNN/ORC poll showed that only 10 percent of Americans approved the job Congress was doing, while 87 percent disapproved. It was the all-time lowest approval rating for Congress on a CNN poll.
A recent Gallup survey found that only 42 percent of Americans — also a record low — have an even “fair” amount of confidence in the government’s capacity to deal with domestic matters.
And in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 26% of Americans say they’re angry at the federal government while 51% feel frustrated. Just 17% say they are basically content with the government. The share expressing anger has risen seven points since January, and now equals the record high reached in August 2011, just after the widely-criticized debt-ceiling agreement between the President and Congress.
It’s a vicious cycle. As average Americans give up on government, they pay less attention to what government does or fails to do — thereby making it easier for the moneyed interests to get whatever they want: tax cuts for themselves and their businesses; regulatory changes that help them but harm employees, consumers, and small investors; special subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. And these skewed benefits only serve to confirm the public’s cynicism.
The same cynicism also makes it easier to convince the public that even when the government does act for the benefit of the vast majority, it’s not really doing so. So a law like the Affordable Care Act, which, for all its shortcomings, is still a step in the right direction relative to the costly mess of the nation’s healthcare system, is transformed into a nightmarish “government takeover.”
So here’s what I told my friend who said he’s giving up on politics: Don’t. If you give in to bullies, their bullying only escalates. If you give in to cynicism about our democracy, our democracy steadily erodes.
If you believe the fix is in and the game is rigged, and that a handful of billionaires and their Tea Party puppets are destroying our government, do something about it. Rather than give up, get more involved. Become more active. Make a ruckus. It’s our government, and the most important thing you can do for yourself, your family, your community, and the future, is to make it work for all of us.
Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, “Inequality for All,” will be out September 27.
(This article originally appeared on Robert Reich’s blog Oct. 7, 2013)
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