The challenge of overcoming ignorance, Part II

THE CHALLENGE OF OVERCOMING IGNORANCE, PART II…. We talked in the last item about public confusion. When it comes to taxes, economic growth, and the financial industry rescue, what most voters believe is actually the exact opposite of reality.

But this ignorance also extends to perceptions about Congress.

After a historic legislative session that saw the passage of health care and Wall Street reform bills, most Americans think Congress accomplished less than or the same amount as usual.

In a new Gallup Poll, 37 percent said Congress did less than what is accomplished in a typical session, while 35 percent said it did the same amount.

Only 23 percent said Congress accomplished more than usual.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a separate poll conducted earlier this month by Pew and National Journal, found similar results.

Remember, this isn’t about merit. Gallup didn’t ask whether folks like what Congress did; it asked whether people perceive the Congress as having accomplished more or less than the typical Congress. Whether one is fully satisfied or not, denying the policy breakthroughs of the last two years is a serious mistake.

Evaluating the quality of these accomplishments is a subjective question, open to all kinds of competing opinions. Evaluating whether the accomplishments exceed the norm is an objective question and the answer, whether people realize it or not, is unambiguous.

I don’t expect the public to have an extensive knowledge of federal policymaking history, but I at least hoped Americans would realize the scope of recent accomplishments. We are, after all, talking about a two-year span in which Congress passed and the president signed the Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, etc. Policymakers might yet add to this list in the lame-duck session.

Some of these efforts have been decades in the making. In the case of health care reform, politicians have been talking about a major overhaul for a full century, but it took this Congress and this president to get it done.

A plurality of Americans, though, perceive this Congress as having done less than usual. I’m not even sure how a political system is supposed to function with an electorate so far detached from reality.

Again, maybe you agree with these accomplishments, or maybe you think they were mistakes. That’s not the point here. What’s worth acknowledging is that we haven’t seen this many accomplishments, on this scale, in a very long time. Norm Ornstein has characterized this Congress as being the most productive in 45 years. Rachel Maddow recently went further, observing, “The last time any president did this much in office, booze was illegal. If you believe in policy, if you believe in government that addresses problems, cheers to that.”

Whether folks realize it or not, this is why the Republicans’ right-wing base is as animated this year as it is — it’s not because Dems are pushing a lot of key progressive priorities that have languished for years; it’s because Dems are passing a lot of key progressive priorities that have languished for years.