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Someone to watch over them: Melinda Gates observes a student visit to TechBoston Academy, Boston with President Barack Obama 

Not since the days of Watergate have American politicians been so despised, and small wonder. At present the job approval rating for all national politicians stands at 11 per cent, making them about as popular as car-jackers. With unemployment at 8.6 per cent, "hope and change" exposed as the cynical electioneering soundbite it always was, legislative gridlock right across Capitol Hill, and a government closedown only averted at the last minute back in June, the one last slender hope was that the bipartisan congressional "Supercommittee" would be able to come up with $1.2 trillion of spending cuts in $44 trillion of projected deficits. It couldn't. The "Stuporcommittee", as the New York Post dubbed it, failed, and with it went the last of the American people's respect for and patience with Washington DC.

Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are reactions against establishment Washington politics, from the Right and the Left respectively, and there is now an assumption that both will promote independent candidates to stand in the presidential elections. The emergence of Michelle Bachman, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich was not solely a repudiation of Mitt Romney's centrism by conservative Republicans, but also an emphatic rejection of the kind of business-as-usual politics Romney seems to personify. Despite Gingrich having earned an estimated $100 million over the past decade as a Washington lobbyist, he is somehow thought of as an outsider, at least in Republican eyes.

Of course it has always been popular to run against "Washington": every candidate since Lyndon Johnson has tried it, with varying success. Ronald Reagan did it very efficiently in 1980, but all candidates try to distance themselves from the politicking and deal-making that are the unavoidable by-products of a large modern democracy. Frank Capra's iconic movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) takes on and beats Washington corruption, was made in 1939, after all. In the denouement, Mr Smith tells his colleagues in the Senate: "I've got a few things I want to say to this body. I tried to say them once before and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not gonna leave this body until I do get them said." Cue the return of honesty and decency to American public life.

What makes the problem so much more serious nowadays, and away from celluloid, is that individual corrupt politicians are not the problem; Americans appreciate that it's the system itself that's broken. With President Obama 11 months from an election in which he has adopted a platform of blaming "the millionaires and the billionaires" for blocking recovery, and the Republicans refusing to increase taxes without corresponding spending cuts, any movement on the economy has been "stopped colder than a mackerel". Yet Americans being the self-reliant individualists that they thankfully remain are not taking their politicians' failures as the last word on matters.

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