NPR: “Permanent Campaign” Handcuffs Government

NPR took a fascinating look last week at why Americans think our government sucks so much.

‘Suck’ might not be the term — the word they use is distrust.  Reporters filed several stories trying to figure out why polls show so few Americans have trust in their government, and I think they hit on some compelling nuggets of truth.

A congressional scholar from the American Enterprise Institute offered a particularly compelling explanation for American’s lack of trust in Congress to NPR’s Andrea Seabrook:

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says the low numbers are “no great surprise.”  He says there is a reason why the level of trust in Congress is bumping the bottom.

“If there were one phrase that you’d want to use to describe the pathology of our time, it would be ‘the permanent campaign,’ ” Ornstein says.

He says there used to be a season of campaigning, and then a season of governing. Now, it seems the two parties are as focused on gaining or maintaining the majority as they are on legislating. And that, Ornstein says, requires strict party discipline, constant fundraising and no sleeping with the enemy — or what a normal person might call compromise.

“All of this cascades together into a public anger at politics-as-usual and a sense that everything in Washington is broken,” he says.

Ornstein’s observation is also part of the reason why I think there are still a lot of people out there who have big problems with the “Tea Party” movement — the Tea Party isn’t just a response to the permanent campaign, but also a manifestation of the permanent campaign.  On the Democratic side, Obama’s Organizing for America campaign also brings campaign-style tactics of voter mobilization into off-years.

Oddly enough, from a political science perspective, I doubt there’s any way these “permanent campaign” tactics translate into higher voter turnout.  I could be wrong.  But in 2008, supposedly a year that would break all kinds of turnout records, turnout only increased slightly, in line with the trends since the 2000 elections.

In other words, there’s no evidence that “permanent campaign” tactics are actually increasing participation.  All they’re doing is making us think government sucks.

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