Talking Points

One unique theory for why Americans distrust Congress

"Over the past half century," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin in a recent testimony before the House Committee on the Modernization of Congress, "the American public has gone from extraordinary levels of confidence in our major institutions to striking levels of mistrust." Trust in Congress is particularly low, polling shows, and Levin posited a compelling explanation for at least some of that decline: Congress increasingly functions not as a useful means of governance but as a platform for its members to gain fame. It isn't "really asking for our trust," he said, "just for our attention":

Some members now seem to run for office less to be involved in legislative work and more to have a prominent platform in the culture war — to become more visible on cable news or on talk radio, to build a social media following, and to use their elected office as a platform to complain about the very institution they worked so hard to enter. They conceive of themselves, or at least present themselves, as outsiders speaking to the institution rather than as insiders working through the institution. And as a result, they incline to approach their colleagues (particularly those of the opposite party) as props in a dramatic morality tale rather than as fellow legislators with whom to negotiate, bargain, and cooperate. [Yuval Levin, via AEI]

Levin's allegation has ample bipartisan application, but perhaps the most obvious examples at present are Republican Reps. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.): Cawthorn, in his words, has "built [his] staff around comms rather than legislation," while Greene said serving on House committees doing actual lawmaking would be a "waste" of her time.

This transformation of congressional culture is deeply detrimental to American politics, Levin said, calling for members to regain "a sense of themselves as insiders acting in the world through Congress — endowed by their office not just with a more prominent cultural platform but with the distinct powers and responsibilities (indeed, the distinct character) of legislators." The modernization committee, he advised, should "help members identify themselves more with the institution and its purpose, channel their ambition through it, and understand themselves as belonging to it, rather than standing on it to make themselves more visible."