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Paradox of mistrust permeates nation

August 29, 2011
Christopher Larimer
Des Moines Register
August 26, 2011

A brief glance at the headlines since the so called “debt deal” was reached and it is obvious that Americans are not happy with their government. This displeasure has been expressed both toward the institutions of government as well as individual members. Perhaps even more alarming, a recent CNN/ORC poll indicates that less than a majority of Americans, only 41 percent, think their own members of Congress deserve to be reelected.

Why is this so noteworthy? In 1978, a political scientist named Richard Fenno discovered what came to be known as “Fenno’s Paradox.” The basic premise is that while people may dislike Congress as a whole, they like their own member of Congress. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer reported the 41 percent finding on air, noting that this number is as low as it has ever been, but made no mention of Fenno’s Paradox.

This is unfortunate because, along with public opinion research on attitudes toward Congress, we can start to understand why folks are so upset with Congress, even their own members.

The reason why so many people distrust government, even their own elected members, stems from another paradox. When Congress is doing the job it was designed to do, Americans tend to have the least respect for it. Survey after survey shows that what drives disapproval of Congress is the perception of constant bickering and an inability to compromise.

Yet, if you read over the founding documents, that is exactly what Congress is supposed to do. It is supposed to be the source of constant deliberation. Unfortunately, for Congress, people tend to view bickering with suspicion. In fact, for most people, the image of constant bickering fuels suspicion that members of Congress are acting on their own self interest rather than the public interest — everyone should be able to agree on what is best for the public, so any disagreement means that somebody is trying to carve out a little extra for themselves.

The debt deal debate magnified this perception beyond compare. Fully 71 percent of the public now thinks members of Congress (as a whole) do not deserve re-election according to a Gallup poll released the same day as the CNN/ORC poll.

The images we saw on television and read about in the newspapers surrounding the debt deal exemplified this paradox brilliantly. President Obama calling out Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner by name, followed by Speaker Boehner’s rebuttal, presented the American public with as sharp an image of this bickering as we’ve seen for some time.

As the bickering became more intense, trust and approval of Congress declined. The more Congress argues and deliberates, the more the paradox of distrust takes hold. That this paradox is now cutting into Fenno’s paradox perhaps demonstrates how much bickering was made public in this debate.

Indeed, in the first Gallup poll released since the debt deal, approval of Congress was at 13 percent (tied for an all-time low), and disapproval of Congress was 84 percent (a new record low). If Congress were to argue behind closed doors perhaps our perception of it would improve (unlikely, however, given our desire for transparency in government).

The CNN/ORC poll mentioned above also shows that favorability toward the tea party movement has decreased, too. From the viewpoint of the paradox of distrust, this should be of no surprise. Unwillingness to compromise has been one of the mantras of this movement and was on full display in the debt debate. In politics, perception is reality (the tea party caucus in Congress was virtually split on the vote for the debt deal).

The Republican Party, like the tea party movement, also saw favorability ratings drop. Those perceived as more open to compromise, Democratic leaders in Congress and President Obama, saw less of a drop in their favorability ratings.

Myself and others have called for the public to have a greater appreciation for the workings of Congress, but this is a two-way street. If the American public’s perception of Congress starts to improve, we may want to take a closer look at exactly what Congress is doing, and how they are doing it.