Entry from August 28, 2011

Over and over again the media loves to tell us that President Obama may be unpopular, but Congress is even less popular. Way less popular. Rosalind S. Helderman and Peyton M. Craighill of The Washington Post have some fun listing some of the other things that Congress is less popular than: “Cloning sheep. Cloning humans, even. Caning teen vandals. Believing that aliens have descended from space and abducted humans. These are all things that, at one time or another, have enjoyed more public backing than Congress is getting right now.” Well, yes and no. For “Congress” is not on all fours with any of these things, nor yet with President Obama, who may have many faults but still speaks with one recognizable voice. His approval rating is a legitimate measure of how far people like what he is doing and what that voice is saying. But “Congress” does (or tries to do) many different things and speaks in many different voices. It is not possible to like them all, as they are contradictory, so it is inevitable that people are going to focus on the ones they don’t like, of which there will always be plenty.

Disapproval of “Congress” — insofar as it really exists — is a catch-all for public frustration because it is depersonalized. You have to take some responsibility for your dislike of the President, or of any other individual politician, but to dislike Congress involves no commitment to a point of view except the easiest of all political viewpoints, namely that all politicians are no-good bums. It’s a popular opinion just because it is so easy to obtain, but here is no rational point in being angry at both sides equally. The country has to go in one direction or the other; if you’re not going the way you want to go, you should disapprove of those who want to go in a different direction and approve of those who want to go in the same direction: it’s absurd to say a plague of both your houses in a democratic society where you are necessarily involved in the public controversy one way or the other — unless you simply want to register a pointless protest about that involvement.

Is that what people really want to do in telling pollsters that they disapprove of Congress? I doubt it. If they don’t know whom to blame, they can blame Congress and feel that they’ve got something off their chests, but it doesn’t represent a real opinion: that is, an opinion that is translatable into some specific political program or agenda. Rather, it is a viewpoint that people buy off the shelf from comedians and satirists going back to Mark Twain, or even earlier — just because it sounds like a real political opinion without committing them to one side or the other of the only two the political culture actually affords them. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle identifies the satirist Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular panelist on the country’s most popular politically themed TV show, Have I Got News For You?, as the most influential political thinker in the UK for the same reason.

And what is Hislop’s principal message? Week in and week out, it is that most [sic] pretty much all politicians are corrupt, deluded, incompetent, second-rate and hypocritical. Hislop’s message is delivered with enviable deftness and wit, and very often it is irresistible. But it is also good-naturedly merciless. And extremely repetitive. There is never any sign that Hislop allows of exceptions; or that he has a political hero; or even, with the occasional honourable mention for Vince Cable, that there are politicians whom he respects. The impression he always gives is that today’s politicians are uniformly unworthy of their inheritance, not to be compared with some previous golden age of statesmanlike effectiveness.

The American equivalent would be Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. People like to take their opinions from such satirists because it identifies them with that worldly, clever, witty and above all knowing attitude that they all affect. No one is putting anything over on you if you adopt the political views of Jon Stewart, who is so smart that he sees through everybody. But it is all just affectation — in Mr Stewart’s case as a smokescreen for his left-wing views. Often, however, people’s approval of him, like their disapproval of Congress, is politically inert and doesn’t translate into any movement of policy one way or the other. But it does tell us something worrying about our political culture itself: that people have learned to be pleased with themselves for holding it in contempt.


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