As the first week of the government shutdown maddeningly dragged on, those pealing, foundational words of the U.S. Constitution -- We the People -- had become a clamorous refrain of discontent. We the People were fed up with They the Government.
"I'm very angry," said Peggy Guardanapo, chewing moodily on a rasher of bacon at a diner near her San Jose home. "There should be no shutting of government. It's ridiculous. I do believe it's time it should be turned over to we, the real people."
By "it," she meant the reins of government: taxing, spending, fighting undeclared wars. She slid a French fry in her mouth as she considered this. We the people, she repeated. Just not her. If nominated she would not run. If elected she would not serve. "I feel helpless," she said.
She wasn't the only one. Even some members of Congress echoed the dismay of their constituents with the D.C. comics running the country, although those expressions of disgust usually were followed by fingers of blame pointed in the other direction.
In a constitutional republic, the people's elected representatives are presumed to be real enough to conduct the nation's business. But in recent days the elephants and donkeys of the two-party system, who toil in the people's house -- the United States Congress -- have been overrun by a stampeding herd of political unicorns.
That would be the Republican tea party faction in the House, a caucus of conservatives whose furious rejection of Obamacare led to the current shutdown. Tea partyers pushed the federal government to the brink of default a year ago by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, waged a monthslong skirmish with equally determined Democrats to retain the Bush tax cuts, and co-authored the sequester with their partners in legislative legerdemain.
And the government shutdown that began Monday might turn out to be just a prelude to a second consecutive debt ceiling crisis -- set to commence in mid-October -- that many economists fear could plunge the country into an even deeper recession than the one from which we just emerged.
President Obama referred last week to the "dysfunction" in D.C., and that was among the kinder things Washington was saying about itself. Democrats used overheated terms like "insanity" and "madness." Republicans countered by charging the president with "arrogance" and ignoring the "will of the people."
"This is really a toxic political environment, and it reflects the feeling people have that the government does not really represent them in a collective sense," said Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who studies how well elected officials reflect the preferences of the public.
Legislators sometimes forget who they were sent to Washington to represent, a common theme running through the keening about Congress. "It's supposed to be about us, not them," said Gordon Chinlund, a small-government Republican who stopped by the Stanford Golf Course's Coupa Cafe. "They work for us."
His outlook for the country was surprisingly sunny for someone who felt the current maneuvering to kill the Affordable Care Act, which requires virtually every citizen to have health insurance, could eventually have a dire outcome. "It's going to get better, because sooner or later things are going to go off a cliff," Chinlund reasoned, "and then we'll have to turn back around and go the other way."
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans repeatedly called upon the president to negotiate with them, attempting to sidestep blame for the budget stalemate that caused the shutdown by suggesting he should agree to delay or defund Obamacare -- his signature legislative accomplishment. Rick Hanson of San Jose didn't expect Congress to meet Obama halfway, but he was open to the prospect of a negotiated settlement if it got the country moving again.
"Maybe he can be a little more flexible on Obamacare, and they need to be more flexible on not trying to defund it," Hanson said. "But they've had six years since he became president to compromise, and they haven't done it yet, so I don't see it happening."
He was particularly dismayed at the troubling effect Obama seems to have on Republicans in Congress. "Being a black man, I'm happy that a black man got elected president -- that the country has come that far," Hanson said. "But looking at what's transpired since he's been president, I don't think he's been good for the country because they're so divided. I've never seen this much division with other presidents."
As a naturalized citizen, Nelson González -- co-founder of the social learning platform Declara in Palo Alto -- is keenly aware of the buy-in required of We the People. "To become an American, you basically have to believe in the Constitution, and this project that we become a part of the minute we say yes to it," he said. "If we lose that, we have chaos."
Gonzalez, like many others, fears that America loses more of its mojo every time it allows itself to be distracted by political theatrics -- and now, such distractions seem to come more often. If his adopted country doesn't right itself soon, he wonders if the U.S. could be nearing the end of its reign as the greatest global power.
"I often fear that we're like Britain in the 1930s," he said. "'I don't think that's a crazy scenario. It's happened to other empires."
As she was about to cover her spiky purple hair with a cycling helmet for another long ride, retiree Carol La Fleur of Fremont just wanted her money back. "I'm disgusted that I'm still paying taxes for these people to be in government, but they're not doing what I'm paying for," she grumped. "So do I stop paying taxes because government is shut down? To me, the Republican Party has gone on strike. And when you go on strike, you don't get paid."
She's seen movies set during the Great Depression, and now she worries that if government can't resolve fairly routine budget issues, some cataclysmic event might just sink the country. "What if there's a shortage of food?" she asked.
La Fleur was especially worried politicians acting like "children" would reduce our standing in the world or even our ability to export democracy. "If I was in another country, I'd say, 'You want me to take on democracy? For what? You're shut down. You want us to stop gassing people? You can't even keep your government together.'"
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.