Effective — that’s how a voter described Congressman Don Young according to an Associated Press story about how easily Young won last month’s primary. It’s a curious choice of words considering that only two weeks earlier a Gallup Poll put Congress’ approval rating at a record low 10 percent. Is Young one of the few that really deserves to be reelected? Or is his long tenure in office nothing more than a reflection of what’s wrong with the American people who elect our government?
Young has served in the House of Representatives longer than all but five other members. However, he hasn’t chaired a single committee since 2008. Nor is he well known at the national level for any particular legislative achievement. Perhaps the factors that define effectiveness have less to do with influence and accomplishments than with how well he speaks for his constituency. And from that perspective most Alaskans seem to believe that Young has served our state well.
Yet if it’s Alaskan voters and not national polls who should be the judge of Young’s performance, then the same holds true in every other state. We’re left to reconcile the meaning of polls that reveal overwhelming disapproval of how Congress is handling its job and the fact that across the country we’re still reelecting 80% of the incumbents in the House of Representatives. What this contradiction implies is that the people in any particular state are blaming the rest of the American people for the failures of Congress because they’re the ones voting to put poor performers back into office. In other words, the only good representative in Washington DC is the one from my district.
There are other polls that parallel the approval ratings of Congress. Gallup asks this question – “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asks us to look toward the future and say if we “think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or … are off on the wrong track.”
Based on these polls Americans began the new millennium with reasonably strong confidence in where the country was headed. There was a notable spike in the fall of 2001. Both polls saw positive responses leap by more than 20 percent. There was a similar jump in the spring of 2003. But overall, they’ve shown a relatively steady downward trend to today where between a quarter and a third of the people are dismayed over the state our country is in.
Sadly, these figures suggest that collectively we were most satisfied with America at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And a lot more people approved of how Congress was handling its job at those times too.
What does that say about us as a people? Are we happiest when we’re angry? Did we expect the wars to make America healthier? Could it be that we were most confident about our future when we could focus blame for the present problems on people beyond our borders?
It could be argued that at those times our economy was strong so our other concerns paled in comparison to the wars. But the high polling results lasted only as long as we appeared to be easily winning. According to all three polls, as the wars dragged on, and long before the financial crash in 2008, we began losing confidence in Congress and in our nation’s future. And let’s not forget that a decade of fighting drained a few trillion dollars from our nation’s treasury.
Like the majority of Americans, Don Young supported the wars. In 1999 he also voted to repeal portions of the Glass–Steagall Act which ultimately contributed to the banking crisis and the four year long economic recession. He lacks the introspective will to publically admit he was wrong. And like most Americans, he’d rather blame someone else, particularly the other party, for the problems America faces today.
Don Young doesn’t deserve another term in Congress. But Alaskans have no right expecting the rest of the country to dump their ineffective representatives unless we’re willing to send our own into retirement.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.