STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We reported earlier this week on a new poll that showed Americans' trust in government is extremely low. One branch, in particular, scored lower than low: Congress.
The Pew Research Center survey shows that only 25 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Congress; thats the lowest rating that Congress has received in the history of the survey.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK: The Rotunda, this lofty space under the Capitol dome, smells like history: wood oil and old stone. Clumps of tourists stand with their faces turned up, toward inscriptions and classical frescoes adorning the inside of the dome. Among the visitors is Alice Carroll, down from Boston.
Ms. ALICE CARROLL: It's awesome. It's unbelievable. It represents America as I like to think of it - when I was growing up, how I thought of it. Makes me sad to see what's happening in Congress now, when I look at this.
SEABROOK: The problem, says Carroll, is the hostility.
Ms. CARROLL: I think healthy discourse is good. But I'm not sure the discourse we've been having through the last few months is healthy, and I'm concerned it's destructive.
SEABROOK: Sandy and Yair Lotan brought their kids here from Dallas. They're also disappointed with members of Congress.
Ms. SANDY LOTAN: Unfortunately, I think that a lot of their motivation is still, you know, on getting re-elected and having to sort of look out for their own legacies.
Mr. YAIR LOTAN: A lot of bickering and partisanship. And if you're, you know, an average American, you really are more worried about what's going to happen in five, 10, 15 years.
SEABROOK: So even here, under the Capitol dome, Americans' view of Congress is decidedly dim.
Mr. NORM ORNSTEIN (Congressional Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): Low numbers for Congress is no great surprise. In fact, the big surprise comes when they're high.
SEABROOK: Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute. Ornstein says there's a reason why the level of trust in Congress is bumping the bottom.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: If there were one phrase that you'd want to use to describe the pathologies of our age, it would be the permanent campaign.
SEABROOK: Ornstein 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, says Ornstein, requires strict party discipline, constant fundraising, and no sleeping with the enemy - what a normal person might call compromise.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: All of this cascades together into a public anger at politics as usual, and a sense that everything in Washington is broken.
SEABROOK: Someone who's seen this happen from inside and out is Bob Inglis. He's a member of Congress from South Carolina, a Republican who served in the '90s when the GOP held the House majority, left Congress for the private sector for six years and then came back, mostly serving in the current Republican minority.
Here is the problem, as Inglis sees it.
Representative BOG INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): The political process rewards people who shout from their partisan walls.
SEABROOK: When the focus is on campaigning rather than legislating, then it benefits candidates to say outrageous things.
An example he gives is immigration. A pro-immigrant Democrat might raise money by promising legal residency to all illegal immigrants, says Inglis.
Rep. INGLIS: Likewise, on the right, you can raise money saying, shoot to kill; and drop those bodies over the fence.
SEABROOK: Neither of those will happen, says Inglis.
Rep. INGLIS: But it works great for politicians because you can raise money and enthusiasm that way. And you will never have a primary opponent.
SEABROOK: Some way, somehow, the congressman says, people have got to come around to valuing rational solutions over hot rhetoric.
But there's a conundrum buried in this and other recent surveys, says Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center. While a huge majority of respondents say they are fed up with partisanship - 78 percent say lawmakers are unwilling to compromise - Americans themselves are extremely divided, says Keeter.
Mr. SCOTT KEETER (Pew Research Center): If a very polarized electorate is making non-negotiable demands on their members as to how they're going to have to behave when making legislation, then it's going to be very difficult for the members, if they want to get re-elected, to have the latitude to compromise.
SEABROOK: In other words, you get what you vote for. Norm Ornstein, at American Enterprise Institute, also sees the broader divisions in society.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: We're moving into communities with like-minded people. We're watching and listening to the media that reinforce the messages that we already believe.
SEABROOK: And, says Ornstein, people are supporting more strident political figures on both the left and the right - figures who ultimately drive our politics farther apart.
The one thing that still unites Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, according to the survey, is their epic distrust of Congress. And that suggests that Americans don't like this new, polarized world. Perhaps that's the beginning of a new search for middle ground.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
INSKEEP: And you can find more in our "Trust in Government" series at NPR.org.
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