By Harsha Nahata, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published February 13, 2012
It’s no surprise that Congressional approval ratings are at an all time low. The most recent Gallup poll puts Congress at 10-percent approval, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll puts Congress at 13 percent. An Associated Press GFK-Poll conducted in August 2011 reports that Congress currently holds an approval rating of a mere 12 percent. And a November 2011 Huffington Post article headline jokingly reads: “Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Porn, Polygamy, BP Oil Spill, 'U.S. Going Communist.'” Apparently more Americans support polygamy or an American turn to communism more than our elected representatives in Washington at the moment.
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Taking just one look at the political climate in Washington shows why people may be fed up. The politically-charged and hostile atmosphere that dictates stalemates over everything isn’t doing much to boost Congress’ image. The summer squabble over raising the nation's debt ceiling was only the beginning, and it seems to have set the tone for how all policy debates will go. Seeing this, it’s not only understandable but also inevitable that a majority of Americans will be frustrated. Normally, I would consider myself among those 88 or 90 percent — having a go at the inefficiencies of our lawmakers and continuously voicing my frustration with the direction Congress is heading.
But last summer — in the midst of the heated debt ceiling standoff — I spent a month in India. The contrast I saw between how government works there and how it works here put things into perspective a bit. I’m not saying that I’ve suddenly gained a huge admiration for all the pointless politicking that occurs in Washington, but there is something to be said for the system we have set up and for all its accomplishments.
While the development that India has undergone in the last decade is truly admirable, a quick trip down its streets reveals much more work to be done. I was greeted by on and off electricity, unclean drinking water in smaller, rural areas and half-paved roads — if there were roads. Big cities weren’t much better: trash littering the streets, backed-up rainwater blocking roads and millions of people living in poverty, without any form of government aid whatsoever. What’s surprising is that this wasn’t a war-torn nation or one stifled by ruthless dictators, or even a nation struggling to grow. This was India: the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies in today’s world.
A large portion of the blame for these inconveniences and subpar public services can be attributed to shortcomings in the government. Government officials are tangled in large webs of lies and corruption. Bribes are not only expected, but are often required to get anything done, starting from the lowest level of law enforcement and ending at the very top. People have long since given up on government, accepting it as a distant entity that is there but hardly ever accomplishes anything.
That is why the entire nation was in an upswing over Anna Hazare. Hazare is a 72-year-old Indian activist who led a 12-day hunger strike lobbying against corruption. From ordinary individuals on the streets to big names in the Indian film industry, everywhere I looked someone was talking about Hazare. Every night there were rallies and marches in his support. 24/7 news cable networks were tracking his every move. Indian flags, hats and even wristbands were being sold on every street corner “for Anna.” Millions even fasted alongside him to further the cause. I’ve been going to India for the past 15 years, and never have I seen the people of that nation so politically involved and so invested in a cause. What was even more telling was their desire to finally see the government held accountable.
So yes, at the moment, Congress has a historically low approval rating of 10 to 12 percent. It’s obvious that we as Americans expect much more from our lawmakers. And we should. The rhetoric heard in Washington these days is frustrating at least and inconceivably petty at worst. And after such a politically charged summer, many are fed up.
As Americans, we’re not ones to rest. We’re always looking for the next problem to solve, the next issue to fight over and the next debate to win. That’s how it should be. Still, there isn’t any harm in taking a moment every now and then to appreciate what we have achieved. Our government is by no means perfect — in fact nowadays, it’s increasingly easy to find faults. But the government and political system that we have is quite an accomplishment in itself. Our government gets a lot of things wrong, but the system we have in place has also gotten a whole lot right.
Harsha Nahata can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter at @harshanahata.