As a young man, I was honored to be the guest of Congressman Jake Pickle (1913-2005) at several Texas Democratic delegation brown bag lunches on Capitol Hill.
On these occasions, we flew from Austin's Municipal Airport to Washington's National Airport (now Reagan) on the non-stop flight known as the "Pickle Express". The "Pickle Express" flew back and forth to Washington on a schedule that miraculously matched that of the Congressman. During these flights, Jake would work his captive crowd by shaking hands, kissing babies and offering help to anyone who had a problem.
One of these trips occurred shortly after an election. During the flight, the Congressman began to analyze the precinct by precinct vote totals that were published in the Austin American Statesman. After a while, a frown came over his face. He gazed out the window and appeared distressed.
I asked, "Congressman, is everything ok?" He pointed to the vote totals for Precinct 107 in Travis County where I served as election judge and said, "Fred, we only received 83 percent of the vote in 107. You know these people! What am I doing wrong?" He added, "Look at this... my district totals are two points below the last election." I assured him that everyone I knew was happy with his representation and he was doing nothing wrong.
My reassurances notwithstanding, Congressman Pickle could not understand why any voter, regardless of party affiliation, would vote against him.
During those years, (forty years ago), most members of the Texas delegation, including Congressman Pickle, were political pragmatists who legislated to the right of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Ironically, by today's standards, most of them would be considered ultra-liberals. In fact, they were seasoned and skilled politicians who learned how to win political battles without disgracing or humiliating their adversaries.
Over time, these same skills which produced gentile political compromise have now become a sign of weakness to a new generation of tone-deaf activists and ideologues who populate much of both camps today.
The polls show that the American people have become increasingly jaded by this adolescent chorus of babble.
As a result, there has been an overall decline of congressional approval since 1974, which has drastically accelerated in recent years.
Here are some details. Since April of 1974, the Gallup Organization has taken 236 polls. Congress suffers from an overall 40 year average approval rating of only 33.43 percent. That's a dismal failure by any measure.
Certainly, there have been periods of higher Congressional approval, like the months following 9/11, but the long term trend since 1974 has been so consistently negative that it trends to zero by 2037, less than 25 years from now.
Of course, trend line projections can be impeached by any statistician because trends measure the average increase or decrease between two points on a chart, so by carefully picking these points, the protagonist can design projections to match any argument.
With that disclaimer in mind, I reviewed all the polls since 9/11/2001, when annual Congressional approval exceeded 60 percent for a brief time. The results are dramatic and far more instructive than the longer trend.
Since 2001, Congressional approval has declined by an average of 4.17 percent each year. This trend line reaches zero by 2016. Certainly, Congressional approval will never reach zero, but it reached 10 percent last year and it currently stands at 14 percent which is unprecedented.
So, how can an overwhelming majority of the American people disapprove so strongly of Congress while continuing to re-elect them by unprecedented numbers? The reasons include blatant gerrymandering, unrestrained big money, conservative media and the overwhelming advantages of incumbency, but sadly, the main reason is found in this famous quote by H.L. Mencken;
"No one in this world, so far as I know-and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me -- has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."