The 18 Percent Congress

By David Swanson

If you were a member of Congress, wouldn’t you behave completely differently from how most members of Congress behave? I mean, if you had not gone through the process required to become a congress member, but just suddenly became one tomorrow, wouldn’t you behave as though you had an ounce of decency? Wouldn’t you take your responsibility at least as seriously as your power and your ego? Wouldn’t you at a bare minimum seek to represent the wishes of the majority of your constituents, the way you were taught in elementary school a representative is supposed to represent? I have to assume you would, as I assume I would, as I assume a majority of Americans would.

If I were a member of Congress, I would be constantly polling my constituents to find out their views of an issue. And if I felt passionately that they were wrong, I would seek to persuade them. If I could not persuade them, I would vote their view rather than my own. My own view would be suspect in my own mind, not that of a majority of my constituents living outside the Beltway and its influences. And if my constituents’ views were too unpopular with moneyed interests to bring in the funds needed to reelect me, then I just wouldn’t be reelected. But, of course, all of us with that attitude will never be elected in the first place.

There are people (18 percent of the country) who approve of Congress right now. That’s a smaller percentage than believe in UFOs. I’m not going to try to explain it. The other 82 percent are of more interest. Some of them simply oppose anything run by Democrats. Some of them are fed up with the Democrats’ refusal to stand up to the Republicans. Some blame the Republicans even though they’re the minority. Others find little of any use in either party, but are passionate about the growing gulf between Congress and the people it supposedly represents.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler recently told some of his constituents that he knows that a majority of them want Bush and Cheney impeached, but that he doesn’t think they’ve thought it through, that they would come to regret it and blame him for it if he acted on their demands. But if we don’t have a public that is capable of thinking things through, then we have a bigger problem on our hands than even a criminal president and vice president. Nadler would seem to have given up on the idea of a democracy, not in Iraq but here in the United States. If he has an argument for why impeachment is a bad idea, he should make it publicly. Then he should poll his constituents. If he hasn’t changed their mind, then he should act on their wishes. I guarantee they would not blame him for doing so.

Of course, the problem is not that Nadler has no faith in his constituents. It’s that he’s not being honest with them. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were pushing for impeachment, Nadler would be making it happen. The loyalty of congress members is not to their constituents, but first and foremost to their Party, its leaders, and its incumbents.

This past spring I did some part-time consulting for Kucinich for President. But, outside of that work, I was also urging good candidates to challenge bad Democratic congress members in primaries. As a result, I had to quit the Kucinich campaign. There is no greater sin than challenging incumbents. This is the upside-down understanding of democracy we’ve developed. I would have thought that the more candidates a party had, the healthier it was. It turns out that suggesting such a thing constitutes a “conflict of interest.” I kid you not. That’s what the Cleveland Plain Dealer accused me of having. If I’d had a part-time job as a corporate lobbyist, I could have worked for another campaign or even been a candidate. Wanting to use our democracy rather than lose it was taboo.

This is especially curious, because Democratic propagandists have been arguing lately that the failures of the current Congress cannot be blamed on the party leadership and must be laid at the feet of the Republicans who have been assisted by the Blue Dog Democrats. Democrats who actually believe the Blue Dogs are blocking them should want to see them challenged in primaries.

The Nation magazine’s Katha Pollitt this week urged Cindy Sheehan not to run as an Independent against Pelosi. Pollitt was quickly put in her place by angry readers and apologized – sort of. She wrote that she would support challenges to Blue Dogs in districts where a progressive was understood to have a chance of winning, but would not support challengers who had no real chance. But incumbents have overwhelming advantages everywhere, and if a progressive can’t win in San Francisco, where can she? And if Sheehan loses, won’t she have put a bit of life into California’s 8th District politics? Won’t she have involved more citizens in their democracy? What possible downside could there be to that?

The downside is, of course, the ever-present ghost of Ralph Nader for President 2000. I suppose I should be grateful that the Cleveland Plain Dealer has no idea I backed Nader back then. I just read an autobiographical book by a writer I greatly admire, Norman Solomon, and he faults himself for having supported Nader in 2000. I would have thought blaming Nader for Bush was a media creation Solomon could see through. Nader was one of several candidates in Florida who each won enough votes to give Bush his stolen “victory.” Many more Florida Democrats voted for Bush than for Nader. Most Nader supporters would have stayed home had he not been on the ballot. And despite running a lousy campaign that promised very little, Gore-Lieberman won the election. Had they won by a bit more, it is likely Bush still would have stolen it.

Of course, likely isn’t a certainty. And of course, Bush and Cheney have been the biggest disaster this country has have ever faced. But there is also a tremendous danger, first in focusing for two years on the next election rather than on impeachment and legislative change here and now, and secondly in settling for an acceptable military-industrial candidate, in learning to tell people NOT to run for office. Solomon, like many other progressives, is looking hopefully at John Edwards. Others have apparently decided to hold their noses and jump into the corporate candidate pool with both feet:

John Grisham, the author of endless bestselling legal thrillers, many focusing – as does his one work of nonfiction – on the demands of justice, is planning to host a fundraiser in my town next month for Senator Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Clinton is, after all, the appropriate next step in our decline and fall: an elected official who displays no concern for what citizens of the country think or even for what she herself pretended to think last week. She’d make a great Grisham character, but I’m afraid he may never write that book. He may instead run for office himself, having established that he can do the only thing needed: raise money.

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