Johnny Carson occasionally used a call and response with his audience. If he were announcing the recent report of Congress' approval ratings, it might have gone like this:
Carson: "Congress' approval rating is really bad."
Audience (shouting in chorus): "How bad is it?"
Carson: "It is so bad that . . .."
So how bad is Congress' approval rating these days?
U.S. Senator Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) has pulled together some comparisons for us. (There's no direct link to his charts; so go to his Web site, http://bennet.senate.gov, and put "Congressional approval" into his Search box. The pdf will be the top choice on the list.) Others' selections from his list are going around the media and Internet, but his chart is the only place I've found with citations to the sources of this otherwise unbelievable data.
Let's start with his report that from 1997 to 2001 the percentage of Americans who approved of Congress ranged between 40 and 65%. OK?
Today it's 9%.
How does that compare with recent polls of our approval of other individuals and institutions?
The IRS that some Republican presidential candidates disapprove of so strongly that they advocate its abolition? It gets a 40% approval rating.
Lawyers get 29% approval.
President Richard Nixon, at the depth of the charges of his Watergate criminality and pending impeachment, was still approved by 24% of us.
The Wall Street and other banks that profited from bringing on the global recession headed to depression, contributed to massive unemployment and foreclosure of homes, and have engendered the anger of both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, still get a 23% approval rating.
How about BP during the time its negligence resulted in the deaths of its offshore drilling rig employees and an uncontrolled spill of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? There were still 16% of us who approved of BP.
And finally (among my selections from Senator Bennet's list), how many Americans approve of the "U.S. going communist"? It's more than the percentage who approve of their democratically, and campaign contributor, elected members of Congress -- a stunning 11%.
I'm reminded of an exchange with a well-educated Kazakh friend when I was visiting her country a few years ago. I'd asked what America could do to help, what do the people of Kazakhstan want and need? She replied, "What we need is another Stalin."
Here was a country, a people, who had just come out from under Russian domination as a part of the Soviet Union, and she was not the only Kazakhi who yearned for some leadership, working electric and water systems, and security on the streets.
Tom Friedman picks up that theme in his column this morning.
At a time when, from India to America, democracies have never had more big decisions to make, if they want to deliver better living standards for their people, this epidemic of not deciding is a troubling trend. It means that we are abdicating more and more leadership to technocrats or supercommittees — or just letting the market and Mother Nature impose on us decisions that we cannot make ourselves. The latter rarely yields optimal outcomes. . . .Thomas L. Friedman, "Who's the Decider?" New York Times, November 16, 2011, p. A35.
[I]n the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing — in theory. But at the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls.
We may not want a dictator like Communist Joseph Stalin -- although as many Americans approve of Hugo Chávez as approve of our Congress (9%). But benevolent "leaders" alone aren't the answer either. When 91% of Americans disapprove of their premier democratic institution, "the people's house," the U.S. House of Representatives, America itself, as well as its democracy, are in very serious trouble.