An old friend who has been active in politics for more than 30 years tells me he's giving up. "I can't stomach what's going on in Washington anymore," he says. "The hell with all of them. I have better things to do with my life."
My friend is falling into exactly the trap that the extreme right wants all of us to fall into -- such disgust and cynicism that we all give up on politics. Then they're free to take over everything.
Republicans blame the shutdown of Washington and possible default on the nation's debt on the president's "unwillingness to negotiate" over the Affordable Care Act. But that law has already been negotiated. It passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the president. It withstood a Supreme Court challenge.
The Affordable Care Act is hardly perfect, but neither was Social Security or Medicare when first enacted. The Constitution allows Congress to amend or delay laws that don't work as well as they were intended, or even to repeal them. But to do any of this requires new legislation -- including a majority of both houses of Congress and a president's signature (or else a vote to override a president's veto).
Our system does not allow one party to delay, amend or repeal a law of the land by shutting down the rest of the government until its demands are met. If that were the way our democracy worked, no law would ever be safe or settled. A disciplined majority in one house could always use the threat of a shutdown or default to gut any law it didn't like.
So the president cannot renegotiate the Affordable Care Act. And I don't believe Tea Party Republicans expect him to.
Their real goal is far more insidious. They want to sow even greater cynicism about the capacity of government to do much of anything. The shutdown and possible default are only the most recent and most dramatic instances of terminal gridlock, designed to get people like my friend to give up.
And on this score, they're winning. The approval rating for Congress was already at an all-time low before the shutdown, according to a poll released just hours before Washington went dark. The CNN/ORC poll showed that only 10 percent of Americans approved the job Congress was doing, while 87 percent disapproved. It was the all-time lowest approval rating for Congress in a CNN poll.
A recent Gallup survey found that only 42 percent of Americans -- also a record low -- have even a "fair" amount of confidence in the government's capacity to deal with domestic matters.
And in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans said they're angry at the federal government, while 51 percent said they were frustrated. Only 17 percent said they are basically content with the government. The share expressing anger has risen seven points since January, equaling the record high reached in August 2011, just after the widely unpopular debt-ceiling agreement between the president and Congress.
It's a vicious cycle. As average Americans give up on government, they pay less attention to what government does or fails to do -- thereby making it easier for the moneyed interests to get whatever they want: tax cuts for themselves and their businesses; regulatory changes that help them but harm employees, consumers and small investors; special subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. And these skewed benefits only serve to confirm the public's cynicism.
The same cynicism also makes it easier to convince the public that even when the government does act for the benefit of the vast majority, it's not really doing so. So a law like the Affordable Care Act, which, for all its shortcomings, is still a step in the right direction relative to the costly mess of the nation's health-care system, is transformed into a nightmarish "government takeover."
So here's what I told my friend who said he's giving up on politics: Don't. If you give in to bullies, their bullying only escalates. If you give in to cynicism about our democracy, our democracy steadily erodes.
If you believe the fix is in and the game is rigged, and that a handful of billionaires and their Tea Party puppets are destroying our government, do something about it. Rather than give up, get more involved. Become more active. Make a ruckus. It's our government, and the most important thing you can do for yourself, your family, your community and the future is to make it work for all of us.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Beyond Outrage," now available in paperback. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.