I Don’t Blame Congress, I Blame YOU

One of the interesting things about living in a democracy is that we actually get what we deserve. That’s the basic premise behind democracies. Yet if you speak with an average American voter, they talk as if a bunch of lawyers snuck into Congress one day and we need to hire exterminators to come in and gas them.

Who exactly do they think elects these people?

Careful research indicates that we do.

With the exception of certain southern states where dead people vote two or three times per election, most every congressmen you meet got his or her job because you or your neighbors thought it was a nifty idea to send ‘em on up. Responsibility lies with us.

Many people believe that in some golden era of American governance, politicians all selflessly made pilgrimages to Washington to frequently attend church and grow handlebar mustaches and fight communists. Until recently. Then they all turned into assholes, and such is why the Republic is flushing down the tubes. In essence, much of America believes that national decline is the direct result of moral atrophy.

It’s not. There are specific, systemic problems with our government that have nothing to do with how morally upstanding the people running it are. These systemic issues won’t be fixed by kamikaze politicians careening into Washington to wage cultural wars and restore virtue. These systemic problems result largely because people lack the ability to understand them.

However it’s much more energizing and vindicating to feel that Washington is nasty because the politicians in it are depraved and corrupt, isn’t it? The notion that moral atrophy is responsible for all ills is seductive, because it means hard-working Americans are being swindled by corrupt politicians. These suit-and-tie hoodlums are just lacking in character, you see. That sort of logic is a lot easier than figuring out things like “math.”

Let’s acknowledge that stupid people do not like tinkering with abstract, complicated problems. They like blaming people. People are easier to get blustery over than concepts.

In the Middle Ages it was a lot more fun to blame things like crop failure or redheads on witches, then set mouthy old women or cats on fire to try and fix the problem. The real reason for famine was in fact more complicated, and involving meteorology and low temperatures and fungal infections and whatnot. But when addressing an angry, starving mob, people didn’t understand explanations about wheat blights half as well as they understood “evil sorcerers” standing right across from them, ready to be skewered with pitchforks. 

We haven’t come far today. I spent a year on the Hill, and spoke to hundreds of constituents from across the country (usually in elevators). I always asked who they were visiting, and this is how 99% of American constituents respond:

Then they would ramble on and on about how Senator Palpatine has a bunch of his kid’s baseball trophies in his office, or how he likes Mountain Dew, or he enjoys killing animals and is thus not the top hat-wearing cartoon caricature they expected him to be. It’s the other congressmen who are at fault.

It turns out that most congressmen are actually pretty likeable and surprisingly intelligent. In fact they care deeply and earnestly about their districts and the people in them. Herein lies much of the problem. Constituents and their representatives prioritize their district’s individual interests over the collective interest of the nation.

If a cavalry base designed specifically to thwart Apache raiders still existed in Hoople, Oklahoma, I guarantee you that the local congressman would fight tooth-and-nail to keep it open in order to preserve the jobs in his district. Likewise, if Placenta, Maryland had a zeppelin air force base, her congresswoman would draw blood to keep those useless dirigibles in production.

Now, magnify that untenable situation by 435 congressional districts and 50 states.

Let’s add the further caveat that when your hard-working congresswoman from Methshack, Arkansas brings back $2 million federal dollars to build a glow-in-the-dark farmers market, she is valiantly reclaiming your hard-earned tax dollars. Whereas the scumbag congressman from Chlamydia, Wyoming who forks over $2 million for a local research grant to teach gay dolphins sign language, he is pissing away your tax dollars on pork barrel spending.

Once again, magnify this effect by 435 districts and 50 states.

Therein lies the problem. Congressmen aren’t evil or corrupt, they’re just doing what their constituents elected them to do. And when you add it all up, constituents mostly want them to do stupid shit.

Don’t believe me? Imagine if we included this questionnaire on the next annual tax return:

Most Americans would answer “yes” to both of those questions, and oddly enough, we’re starting to run low on cash. Also, interestingly, we tend to elect the guy who promises to do both of these things and has the sturdiest jaw line.

We as Americans believe our government has failed us because of its decline in character. We do not think there are complex systemic problems, because we are too lazy to actually analyze them. So instead we crank out angry sloth logic and assume that the ills of our nation spring from a crop of wicked politicians. If we simply had grittier, more morally upstanding representatives, who pray more and philander less, then the debt would magically go away. Or so the logic goes.

Well, it wouldn’t. Do you know why? Because we keep electing our guy to keep the cavalry base open, and we want Social Security and cost of living increases and if we back down on building that Death Star we’ve been talking about the Chinese will think we’re a bunch of pussies.

When we rack up a debt we assume its because of other political reprobates screwing everything up. So we should send our angry, pissed off guy to Washington to set these other dickheads straight, right? Thus we end up sending forth apoplectic militants to render fiery cultural monologues rather than actual bother getting around to fixing anything.

We elect them. We send them to Congress. They’re doing what we want, and that’s to try and drown each other into submission. We no longer send delegates to the Swamp to tinker with wonky proposals, we catapult firebrands to set Congress straight. To come up here and bitch and scream and bring the Republic back to some sort of moral glory which wouldn’t actually do jack to address legitimate systemic problems anyway.

Voters continually lament the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, as if that’s something they actually wanted. Americans don’t want their representatives to be bipartisan, they want everyone else to be bipartisan. Their guy is supposed to go to Washington to lay down the law and restore sanity. This is problematic because no functional government can be composed of 535 Prophet Elijah’s all calling down plumes of fire on the heathens. Somebody actually has to get shit done.

If you think Washington is falling apart because we keep sending up crummy politicians, I suggest you turn your focus to whoever is sending the alleged miscreants up here.

It might well be you.

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 Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.

34 Comments

  • Jim
    June 14, 2012 - 10:18 am | Permalink

    Very H.L. Mencken. I like i t.

  • Jim
    June 14, 2012 - 10:20 am | Permalink

    Mencken said, by the way, that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

  • Jim
    June 14, 2012 - 10:24 am | Permalink

    PS- How did you know this was in Placenta, MD?
    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/06/deflated-mega-blimp/all/1

  • Richard F. Fenno, Jr.
    June 14, 2012 - 11:15 am | Permalink

    Stop rewriting my scholarly articles! Did Mayhew put you up to this?

    • Heaton
      June 14, 2012 - 11:22 am | Permalink

      I don’t think I’m well educated enough to have read any of your articles before, Professor Fenno. Does this mean you and I think more or less on the same wavelength? In THAT case I propose that we team up to write a book, where you write legitimate academic observations which I then illustrate with shoddy stick figures. Think about it?

  • Jeff
    June 14, 2012 - 11:17 am | Permalink

    This post is brilliant, as expected. It is also a direct corollary to the (somewhat) famous “545 People” editorial.

    Here it is, for anyone that’s interested:

    Maybe “I don’t blame Congress, I blame YOU!” and “545 People” ought to be required reading and discussion material in high school.

    • Heaton
      June 14, 2012 - 11:26 am | Permalink

      Hmmm, I like Charlie Reese’s style, but his point is counterproductive to my own. Which is ultimately that the American electorate is blinded by the aggregate causes which inflict harm upon the nation as a whole, rather than 545 miscreants playing Three Stooges in Washington. If you flushed out the 545 people, the aggregate problems would remain the same.

      • Jeff
        June 14, 2012 - 3:05 pm | Permalink

        I don’t disagree with you, necessarily, but there is a certain amount of responsibility we can reasonably expect from our representatives. We can expect them to educate themselves on an issue prior to voting on it and we can expect them to use that knowledge productively to solve whatever issue they’re voting on.

        Your point might be summarized: “Americans are Stupid, therefore their government is stupid.” You’re not necessarily wrong, but we need our government to work in spite of the stupidity of the electorate. The ignorant usually outnumber the educated and that’s not likely to change.

        • June 15, 2012 - 2:41 pm | Permalink

          I think it’s a little unfair to say that Heaton’s point is “Americans are stupid and government is stupid.” I don’t think he’s saying stupid, he’s saying short-sighted and lacking accountability and maybe even a little self-involved. If voters were just a little more sophisticated and a little less responsive to rhetorical flourishes and soundbites, we might be able to elect better people and empower them to “get shit done.”

          • Heaton
            June 18, 2012 - 12:49 pm | Permalink

            Thank you, Danielle. I suppose a less cheeky version of my thought is that constituents are not so much stupid as that they suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance. There are certain things they don’t understand, so they blame easier things, like political character. The other point is that constituents lack big-picture thinking: hence our congressman brings home the bacon, whereas yours is a pork-barrel-spender. When you start thinking nationally, the absurdity of the situation becomes apparent.

            I HIGHLY agree with you that situations would be improved by more sophisticated constituents less responsive to rhetorical flourishes. While it would be blatantly unconstitutional, I wonder what would happen if for one year all news in America could only come through newspapers and not through cable news. I suspect our national comprehension would rise dramatically.

  • June 14, 2012 - 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I liked this post.

    • Heaton
      June 14, 2012 - 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Jim! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • June 14, 2012 - 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful stuff, and very much my point of view as well If I my shamelessly plug for a moment, in my book I wrote (with less eloquence than you:

    “Why do we spend so stupidly and recklessly? Part of the reason is because everyone wants the problem fixed on someone else’s back. Spend less on them, the mantra goes, but not on me. It seems that the days of true shared sacrifice are gone for good. Try to imagine, say, widespread gas and sugar rationing in order to make sure we win the “war on terror.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

    By now you’re likely saying to yourself, “Not a chance.” Hell, most people can’t even honestly stick to odd and even lawn watering days during a dry spell.”

    • Heaton
      June 15, 2012 - 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Thank, you Michael!

      I agree with your point (and need to get your book). Someone said that we as Americans no longer think as citizens, but as consumers. That lamentably true, but hopefully we can fix it.

      I’m glad you’re working to do so!

  • Mark McDonough
    June 15, 2012 - 11:02 am | Permalink

    Shades of the often prophetic Walt Kelly and his character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Nice article (and stick figures).

    • Heaton
      June 15, 2012 - 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! I feel like my stick figures are lagging behind my political observations, but eventually they’ll probably reach an equilibrium.

  • Emily Ginder
    June 15, 2012 - 11:11 am | Permalink

    I would love to share this, but I can’t because of the foul language. Is there a way it could be written without the four letter words? If also might be more effective that way!

    • Heaton
      June 15, 2012 - 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad that you like it, Emily! But saddened that my flippant language might limit your audience. I’ll think about that and consider making a “safe” page, which would be the same but have G-level words. Then you could share it without fear of offending anyone.

  • Scott
    June 15, 2012 - 12:23 pm | Permalink

    It might be interesting to expose what our representatives spend much of their time doing after we send them to DC. Spending much too much time on the telephone and going to mixers fundraising for their re-election so they can keep their job. That should give the circle a completed ‘clink’ and really help drive home your point.

    • Heaton
      June 18, 2012 - 12:44 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good point, Scott. If you read A Letter to America, by David Boren, he talks about the intense financial pressure on politicians to constantly fund raise. For instance, a senator running for re-election needs to raise an average of $1,000 every day for ALL SIX years before the next election.

      A simple solution proposed by Boren, which would do wonders, would be if we made a law prohibiting political donations across state lines. Otherwise PACs swoop into states and heavily weigh the outcome of the elections, independent of what voters would have otherwise considered top priorities.

  • Rod Davis
    June 15, 2012 - 12:55 pm | Permalink

    … except that most politicians seem to be listening more to the Big Spender corporate meddlers [via Citizens United] than to their true (i.e. live) constituents.

  • Fishy
    June 15, 2012 - 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Hard to get past the first line because having just come away from a state convention, we in no way live in a democracy. I’m not entirely convinced we live in a republic anymore either. I will however acquies that we have gotten what we deserve having observed the high level of participation changing the political parties involves. I would in fact suggest we live in a two party hegemony. When a politician runs on a platform of doing this or not doing that, but has no consequences for doing the opposite, other than potentially losing reelection, we are still stuck with those laws. Yes the leg. can repeal laws, but it’s sort of like the out of control spending, cut a dollar but spend 100 more. Bad policies achieve bad outcomes. Rarely are bad policies removed rather modified. Nor do we learn from our history: Eisenhower fixed illegal immigration in two years, prohibition was repealed after a few grisly deaths and the rise organized crime and political corruption. Common misconceptions about the simplest of topics are promulgated from the giant soapbox of mass media which makes more money from controversy than common sense ie my student loans made money for somebody at an interest rate i wish i could get, I am forced to pay into social security so how is it free? I coasted into the state convention on a extemporaneous speech that was basically, “We didn’t get to the edge of a cliff in four years, I’ve always been independent, and will always vote for the person of most character, which is usually a third party canidate that I’ve never heard of.” Other people faced much stiffer completion to get there. I felt that I could by far influence more people and the state party platform, then I ever could by just placing a vote. Our votes are now counted by corporate computers with no chance of actually having a real (paper) audit. It’s been statistically shown that vote fraud is now rampant, but most folks don’t have a basis to understand these arguments. It’s easier to blame people rather than to testify to a group about common sense policies which then at least have a chance of moving a vast amount of people, you are right, way to perpetuate.

    • Heaton
      June 18, 2012 - 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Fishy– keep up at it! We need more people who think for themselves instead of just rallying between one or another political football team with neckties. Go do some more stump speeches and preach common sense!

  • Pingback: I Don’t Blame Congress, I Blame YOU | For Economic Justice

  • Runs with Scissors
    June 15, 2012 - 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Our Senators and Representatives used to have the courage to tell us what we needed to hear. Now they consult the pollsters to find out what we want to hear and tell us that.

    Politicians who tell the truth to their constituents don’t get re-elected…

  • June 16, 2012 - 4:55 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating post, and one with a fair point. I’m not sure that there’s absolutely NO correlation between the composition of the moral fabric worn by the boys and girls playing around in the Swamp – you wax a wee bit hyperbolic on that point, I think, and possibly to the detriment of your point – but it behooves us to remember that no matter what, we’re the ones who put them there, and we’re responsible for the things that get done while they’re there. Good stuff, overall.

    • Trey Bush
      June 29, 2012 - 5:25 pm | Permalink

      While I can see your point, I think Andrew still trumps with the idea that we are electing superficial facades rather than finding value beyond a charming smile and empty promises that make no fiscal, and more often than not, no general sense. Somehow, the politicians keep finding enough people to vote for them. Though they may lack moral fiber, and that is a huge problem, they are getting elected by us as the constituent. I would not say I have an acute ability at recognizing a lack of moral efficacy, but I, and most voters, should be able to see that this persons past is not as morally upright as they claim. This revelation can be easily found with surface level sleuthing of the candidate. Bringing us back to the general lack within the voters ability, or inability, to vote responsibly. Simply said, I agree with the point you are making, but I don’t think Andrew has migrated nearly as far from the point you are disagreeing on. It ultimately does come down to the voter’s ability to recognize not only the politicians platform, but also his ethical responsibilities (kissing babies and picking up a shovel will never qualify a person as being ethically upright). there is probably more of a point that I am trying to make here, but it’s Friday. Happy Friday to you.

      • Heaton
        June 29, 2012 - 6:45 pm | Permalink

        Happy Friday indeed!

  • Anna Banana
    July 3, 2012 - 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I liked your post, even though I’m not sure I agreed with it.

    While I do believe that voters are to blame for a fair chunk of policies in, say, Denmark, I do not believe that it is the case in the U.S. any more. Actually, I will amend that: it might be the case in local and state elections with above-average voter turn-out, but definitely not in national elections.
    A bunch of not-so-awesome things happened in the early 1970s (de-industrialization, financialization, Nixon) that had a combined negative influence on the current and unrepresentative state of American politics. I think someone has already mentioned money and short-term gains as primary drivers, and I agree that they are major contributors to a disconnected, elitist Congress (yes, elitist: until recently laws on insider trading didn’t apply to members of Congress and that says it all as far as I’m concerned.)
    Many Americans are functionally illiterate (about 20% depending on the source), so even if the only news source was print, it wouldn’t do much for national comprehension. Add to that the consistent cuts to education over the last four decades and you have a population of voters who, when they can even be bothered to drive to the damn polls, tick a box on the ballot based on a few seconds of emotion, not minutes or even hours of rational thought.

    So there you have it. It’s dinner time and I’m all kinds of hungry.

    • Heaton
      July 10, 2012 - 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I appreciate the input, and particularly the Dano-American perspective on the issue.

      I’m not sure where you disagree with me, though. If the American public is under-educated and semi-literate, then it’s their deficiency which is leading to the problems you mention, right? I’d certainly raise education funding, but I’m not sure what else you can do to educate the public beyond that. You can’t ask the government to do it, because politicians by nature are pushing an agenda, not objective facts.

      Where I exempt Americans from electing horrid representatives is in the selection of extremists they’re given. Due to blatant gerrymandering (www.mightyheaton.com/2012/04/12/congressional-districting-as-rorschach-tests/) we wind up getting artificially extremist candidates, instead of more moderate ones who would better represent the average American. For that I blame state legislatures.

      So in essence: I blame our bad government half on scheming state legislatures, and half on lazy/idiotic citizenry.

      Hope dinner was delicious!

      • Trey Bush
        July 11, 2012 - 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Mr. Heaton,

        You sir have an incredible ability to articulate the most sensible concepts. I’m with you here as well. I look forward to meeting you someday. It will undoubtedly be one of the hardest laughing days of my life.

        Thanks for an awesome blog to keep up with. Paige and I loved your newest house sitting one! She gave me the back story on your Patrick family shenanigans.

        • Heaton
          July 23, 2012 - 12:56 pm | Permalink

          Thank you, Trey! I appreciate it. And I imagine if you’re embroiled with the Patrick clan, we will indeed meet one day.

          I look forward to it!

  • Duh
    August 6, 2012 - 8:19 pm | Permalink

    I read the first three sentences and realized the author must be clueless to the fact that the constituents DON’T elect their leaders in the USA…presidential elections are rigged, AND they are won by the electoral senate. Everyone in Congress does whatever the money tells them to do, not their constituents.

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