Blame Ourselves for Washington Dysfunction

Dysfunction in Washington, manifesting itself most obviously in the partial government shutdown, but clearly observable in just about everything Congress has done over the past few years, has led to widespread condemnation of the legislative branch. The current Real Clear Politics poll average shows just 10.5% of Americans approve of Congress’s performance while an overwhelming 82% disapprove. An NBC/WSJ poll finds 60% of respondents are ready to fire every single member of Congress and start over (yeah, right, but more on that later).

It seems Congress (and President Obama to a lessor, but still significant extent) is getting the blame for our broken political system. The reality, however, is that everything going on in Washington simply reflects our own dysfunction as a society. The American people ourselves are the real reason our country is in the shape it is in.

Mention this to most Americans and they will make excuses. Yes, everyone was elected, they say, but the elections are unfair. Big money plays too much of a role. Gerrymandering protects incumbents. Lobbyists are running the show. The media brainwash voters. Some of these criticism have merit, and I agree to some extent with all of them, but they still don’t change the fact that we the people are responsible.

Lobbyists, big money, and the media have quite a bit of power, but they can’t sell us what we don’t want to buy. All the money in the world couldn’t have saved the New Coke, and all the money in the world can’t elect a politician we don’t want. Sure, money can market a politician, party, or ideology, but at the end of the day it’s up to us whether or not to buy it. And time and again, we keep buying the same product.

Gerrymandering is a problem, but so far I’ve yet to see much of a grassroots movement against it. If there was significant public support for nonpartisan Congressional districts, we’d see interest groups and PACs devoted to the idea, we’d see ballot initiatives in states where they are possible, and we’d see politicians adopting it for their platforms. We don’t see much of these things because most Americans engaged in politics aren’t anti-gerrymandering, they just oppose it when it benefits their opponents. They’re more than happy to draw congressional districts to benefit their allies.

Prevention of voter fraud, usually through voter ID laws, is a cause célèbre on the right, but there’s no evidence in-person voter impersonation is a major problem. Between 2000-2012 there were only ten such cases known, so it’s a safe bet voter ID laws will prevent more legal votes from being cast than any fraudulent votes they may prevent.

We live in an entertainment society. Most of us would rather watch Duck DynastyThe Big Bang TheoryAmerican Idol, or Breaking Bad than do the intellectual legwork needed to become informed citizens. And why wouldn’t we–I’m sure these shows are all more fun than reading a newspaper–and I’m not bashing people for watching TV. We all need some downtime, of course, but when we fail to involve ourselves at every level of government, when we pay no attention until something like a shutdown occurs, we are doing ourselves, our families, our children, and future generations a grave disservice.

By the way, this is not an ideological argument. Being engaged does not necessitate becoming a liberal, conservative, libertarian, moderate, or anything else. It does, however, require enough knowledge of issues to be able to rationally articulate our views to those who do not share them, a basic understanding of the other side’s position (not a straw man), and enough civility to not get angry when someone disagrees.

You may already be doing this. If so, good on you. Now convince your neighbors to do the same.

For what its worth, I hope NBC/WSJ poll is accurate and we do vote out all incumbents in the House and all up for reelection in the Senate in 2014, but it’s a safe bet at least 90% of them will be reelected (as has been the case in every election since 1946). People love their own member while hating the institution. But even if your own member is closer to your own views, s/he has still failed to solve the dysfunction in Washington. For that, s/he deserves to be fired.

Pilgrimage to Deer Lodge

Over the past 15 or so years visiting the Deer Lodge area of Morgan County, TN has become something of a semi-annual ritual. The area is ripe with bucolic charm, and holds special significance for me as the final resting place of many of my ancestors. Visiting their graves is always a special experience.

Here I share a few of the photos I took on my October 12, 2013 visit to Deer Lodge and the surrounding area.

The above and below photos are of the graves of my great-great-great-great grandparents, Thomas Norris and Kesiah Hayes Norris, who first moved to East Tennessee from North Carolina in the early 19th Century. Their final resting place in beneath these cairns in Norris and Smith Cemetery in Fentress County.


Jonesville Road, as viewed from Norris and Smith Cemetery on a particularly nice day.

Adams Hill Church, located near Shakerag (so-called because of a common signal in the area used to alert moonshiners of the presence of revenuers–rags would be shaken from windows).
The grave of my great-great-great-great grandfather, Luke Hall at the Hall Cemetery off Luke Hall Road. A colorful figure in Morgan County history, Luke ran a tavern and was a notorious fighter. According to family tradition, men would travel from miles around to challenge him to fist fights, but Luke was always victorious. One particularly nasty fight ended with an opponent being thrown in a fireplace.

Sadly, Hall Cemetery is home to many, many unknown graves. Here is one that gives us a clue as to who was buried here–someone with the initials S. N. (or perhaps S. T. N.; the stone reads “S + N”), who apparently died in 1854. One wonders who S. N. was, and what kind of life he or she had.

The view looking toward Nashville Highway (Hwy 62) from the Hall Cemetery. Once a major artery between Knoxville and Nashville, it is now a scenic, sleepy country highway.

The grave of another great-great-great-great grandfather, John Howard. As a young man of 14, John served the Patriot cause in the American Revolution as a spy among the Cherokee. The grave is located in Clear Creek Cemetery.

View of a pond from Clear Creek Cemetery. Fall is clearly on the horizon.