In 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts.” It’s been a long time since then, but the sentiment behind Lincoln’s quote remains timeless. Given this, one might ask, what then happens if the people no longer approve of the job congress is doing?

Congressional approval has varied greatly over the years especially when major events occur, new leaders get elected, or high profile legislation happens. Luckily, thanks to Gallup Inc. who has held long-standing national opinion polls, we have a bit of an insight into these changes in government approval.

For about 20 years (when Gallup started conducting its polls), from 1974 to 1994, congressional approval ratings were fairly steady, averaging around 30.3%.  Starting in 1992 and going through the end of 2001, congressional approval ratings went on a binge and began an incredible rise, peaking at 85% after the 2001, 9/11 attacks. But then, something happened.

In 2002, approval ratings began to fall. And continued to fall. And fall sharply. By 2007, approval ratings had fallen from their peak in 2001 down to the lowest yet recorded in July of 2008, at just 14%. Then, after a short spike in approval in 2009, they continued to strike new lows, averaging just 19% approving of the job congress was doing between 2008 and 2017, with an all-time low of just 9% approval in November, 2013.

Between 1974 and 1994, approval ratings went below 20% just two times. Between 1995 and 2006, not once did they sink below 20%. From 2007 until today, congressional approval has been recorded (in monthly opinion polls held by Gallup Inc.) below 20% a staggering 84 times!

Source: Gallup Inc.:


What went wrong?

With such historically low approval ratings for our politicians – on both sides of the aisle – one has to question, what happened? What went wrong with our government? To be clear, a low approval rating does not necessarily mean a politician is doing a bad job, but it should tell him (or her) that they could at least be doing a better job.

So, how can our politicians turn it around? One might ask, is it time for a new generation to step into the fray to bring different ideas and ways of working to the table? Or can our current politicians at least learn from a younger civic minded generation?

When athletes starts to struggle with their game, it is not uncommon for a coach to have him/her get back to basics. The hope is that a focus on fundamentals will help fix whatever the issue was, and allow the athlete to step up their game again.

Maybe politicians need to do just what athletes do — get back to basics. Or maybe, the coaches need to look to bring in some fresh new talent to the team.

Either way, there is a place we can all turn to for the guidance and fresh look toward politics that might liven up our spirits and shine a bright light on the future outlook for our government. A place where today’s youth challenge themselves to explore difficult topics, and debate the future of our nation in the style of our forefathers. What I speak of is the array of academic competitions that engage students in government affairs.

A bright future for government?

The Institute of Competition Sciences has researched a network of more than 450 competitions, and come up with a top five list of Competitions Politicians should Pay Attention to. It’s not to say that these are the only competitions engaging students in civic affairs, but these are ones that have demonstrated exceptional response and results in this arena. Perhaps by looking to the youth challenging themselves by participating in these programs, our government leaders can get back to the basics and start bringing those approval ratings back up. Take a look at the competitions here:

  1. We the Students Essay Competition

For a refresher on civic competence and responsibility, there is the We the Students Essay Competition. Hosted by the Bill of Rights Institute, students are given a question relevant to government affairs and society and asked to answer it (and any sub-parts) with a well-thought out and supported response.

In doing so, they can show their understanding of the rights the people are attributed under the law and their duty to exercise them.

  1. We the People Competition

Along the same lines of promoting civic competence and responsibility, there is the We the People competition hosted by the Center for Civic Education. The competition part follows a course of study and education on the principles of the Constitution and democracy. For the competition, students get to testify in front of ‘Congress’ as part of a simulated hearing giving them the opportunity to put the ideals, principles, and theories into practice they have been learning in class.

  1. C-Span’s StudentCam Competition

Of course, for a politician to do the kind of job people can approve of, it helps to know what the people perceive as problems. C-Span’s StudentCam Competition asks students to take an objective look at issues affecting their community and the nation. The idea is to get them to think critically about these matters, organize their thoughts, and present them in the form of a short (5-7 minutes) film documentary.

It is hard to solve the nation’s problems if you can’t recognize what they are.

  1. Harlan Institute-ConSource Virtual Supreme Court Competition

As essential as civic competence and understanding the issues of the day are, if the solution is not a legal one it will do more harm than good. That is where the Harlan Institute-ConSource Virtual Supreme Court comes in handy. Two teams of students get the chance to research constitutional law, write legal briefs, and argue their side of a hypothetical case to a panel of attorneys acting as judges.

  1. American Foreign Service National High School Essay Contest

It is important to look at situations in other countries, evaluate then, and then get involved once a clear strategy has been laid out. That is what the American Foreign Services Association does through the American Foreign Service National High School Essay Contest. Students are given a scenario and tasked with resolving a crisis. A great way to practice for the challenges that face our global leaders today!


The students that participate in these competitions and the hundreds of others that engage them in critical thinking, problem-solving, and global challenges are proof that the ideals and principles the nation was founded on can still be applied today. Maybe if the country’s power brokers could see how the youth of today would approach the issues the government faces, they would remember why they got into politics in the first place. Or maybe we the people will find a new generation of amazing politicians we can get behind by following these competitions.

Congress shouldn’t be about power. It should be about making the nation a better place to live. If you want to find an up-beat perspective on the future of our government, look no further than these amazing student challenges. The future doesn’t have to include a sub-20% congressional approval, and the students stepping up to the challenge in these competitions are showing us the way.