Washington knows no fury like a tourist scorned, and on Columbus Day the city rocked with the rage of sightseers turned away from the Washington Monument and the Smithsonians.

Why? After nine months of fingerpointing and politicking, the Congress had not yet passed its budget. So the federal government had to shut down.

Unfortunately for the politicians, the Capitol was still open. Twelve thousand tourists waited outside. Those who got in jammed the galleries, booing loudly when Congress adjourned to comittee sessions.

Later one group cornered a distinguished-looking man they thought was a congressman, angrily calling him a “dim bulb.” (He turned out to be a reporter.) Legislators cowered in their offices.

The message was clear: watch out, Mr. and Ms. Congressperson. You have dithered and dallied long enough. You have allowed the federal deficit to swell to a mind-numbing $293.7 billion; you have allowed the S & L crisis to land in the wallets of ordinary taxpayers; you have stalled the legislative agenda. About the only thing you have managed is to vote yourselves pay raises and get yourselves re-elected.

Was it not the privilege of the ruling elite that led irate Parisians to storm the Bastille 200 years ago? If those Washington tourists on Columbus Day weekend had been armed with pikes rather than maps of the closed Smithsonians, we might have had a bloodbath.

Limousines On Parade

I came to Washington as a Senate aide in 1956, and never have I seen an uglier public mood. It threatens our system—if not from the revolt of citizens sick of red ink and thirsting for blood, then from apathy, which saps the vitality of our democratic process.

The current crisis began last January when President Bush offered a $1.23 trillion budget, which, by sleight-of-hand accounting (the kind that would land you or me in jail), held the deficit to a “mere” $63.1 billion. Lawmakers stalled for months, missing every single deadline they had to come up with an agreement.

Then in September, morning newscasts showed solemn legislators streaming by in their limousines on their way to the Andrews Air Force Base budget summit; evening newscasts showed them streaming back out.

Was anything happening? Nothing, commented Newsweek, “Unless you count telling stories and drinking coffee as productive activities.”

Finally, the result of their labors emerged: a five-year, $500 billion budget-deficit-reduction measure that took only five days to be rejected by Congress.

Article continues below

“We pulled a rabbit out of the hat,” moaned one Senate staffer, “and it mooned us.”

Drifting With The Polls

As I write, the paralysis continues, perhaps signaling what Alexander Solzhenitsyn calls the first symptom of the end of a society: “the decline of civic courage.” The waffling President, and the congressmen and senators, drift with the polls, unwilling to offend special interests, unwilling to take a stand on taxes or spending cuts. So the deficit climbs, the economy sinks.

This surrender of political responsibility breeds massive public disillusionment, which takes two forms.

The first is the cynicism that comes when voters see the charade of deadlocked budget talks, and then read that at the same time closeted congressional committees are busily passing pet projects in their home districts in a $25 million “Christmas Tree” legislative package. When frugality ends at the borders of one’s own congressional district, citizens begin to believe that all officials are rogues and the process is beyond recovery. That’s why over half of those eligible no longer vote. Why bother?

The other reaction expresses itself in action rather than apathy. We saw it in those tourists storming the Capitol: Off with their heads! You see it in the growing movement to throw absolutely every incumbent right out of Congress on his or her ear.

In Florida a man named Jack Gargan is so angry that he has spent thousands of dollars advertising a message in which he urges people to vote against all incumbents. He calls his nonprofit, nonpartisan organization T.H.R.O. (for, Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out); he has run nearly 200 full-page newspaper ads, and 40,000 Americans have written to him in support or sent money. Oklahoma has adopted a limit on terms, and this idea is catching on in other states.

I am all for limiting terms, and have been for years. But the notion of defeating every incumbent is an extreme that shows just how irrational people can become.

Unraveling Democracy’s Fabric

What are we to make of all this? Clearly, political leaders have lost the Founding Fathers’ vision that public office is a trust to be held by citizen legislators—patriots who put aside their plows to serve in government, then return to their vocation after a few years.

Instead we have a politocracy made up of a ruling elite who blithely give themselves raises, politick their way through barren budget summits (while the fate of future generations hangs in the balance), pad their precincts with pet projects, and use their leftover campaign donations to cushion their retirement.

Article continues below

Democracies are delicate. For their survival they depend on the weaving together of the responsible leadership of those governing and the confidence of the governed; both cynicism and apathy unravel that fragile fabric. Without such a consensus, wrote Thomas Aquinas, there can be no law.

This is the real danger before us—and as Christians we should sound the alarm. We know from Scripture that governments are ordained to preserve order—without their restraint of evil, anarchy erupts. We must encourage those few politicians willing to stand up and lead responsibly; and we must moderate the deteriorating extremes by challenging our fellow citizens to be responsible as well, neither dropping out of the system nor trying to overthrow it.

The fact is, the only thing worse than the current crop of spineless government leaders on Capitol Hill would be no government. And that is the greatest danger of all.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.