Much recent discussion of American politics has focused on the atmosphere that has rendered Congress dysfunctional. A variety of causes has been blamed for the fact that partisanship, a healthy element in a well-functioning democratic society, has metastasized into a bitter divisiveness that prevents cooperation even when partisan differences should not be a factor and deters reasonable elected officials from compromising with their opponents on those issues where differences are legitimate.

Commentators have blamed the politicians, the mainstream media, social media, radio talk shows and the Supreme Court’s decision to allow campaign contributions to flow unhindered throughout the system. In a more partisan vein, the president has been accused by the right of failing to show leadership, and many of us on the left strongly believe that the tea party influence has been a significant disturbing factor.

There is some truth in all of these analyses, although I agree more with some than with others.

But the greatest defect in this debate is the failure to place some of the blame on one group of actors that bears as much responsibility as any other: the public.

Congress is not an autonomous institution, operating according to the instincts, desires and impulses of the members. They act the way they do more because of the influence of the American public than of any other factor.

Ninety-nine percent of the Senate and 100 percent of the House is at all times in office because each member received more votes than anybody else in the last election. Nor are these members wholly self-directed. No argument I have heard in this debate is sillier than the notion that members of Congress focus their attention entirely inside the Beltway. To the contrary, members of Congress should be criticized for not spending enough time with each other. The practice for years has been for representatives and senators to be in Washington only to cast votes two or three days a week, two out of every three weeks. It is important for members of Congress to stay in touch with their constituents. But it would also be beneficial if, as used to be the case, they could meet with each other in various informal settings, outside of the formal arenas in which they are debating tough issues.

And whether members are in Washington or their districts, they are subject to a constant stream of messages from their constituents. When they hear from people who will be voting the next time their names are on the ballot, I guarantee you that they pay attention.

It is true that only a part of the public chooses to influence this process, and that itself is a large part of the problem. Much of the culpability I assign to citizens for the problems that exist today in Washington belongs to those who do nothing. This is a problem both with regard to the question of who wins elections, and with the impact that voter opinion has once people are elected.

Clearly we suffer from an increasing polarization between the two parties; members who are on the ideological edges of their parties have a great deal of influence. (This phenomenon is far more common these days among Republicans than Democrats.) The explanation is very simple: Because most people do not vote in primaries, the primary electorate is disproportionately more liberal on the Democratic side and more conservative on the Republican. People who complain that the members of Congress are too sharply divided ideologically but who do not vote in primaries contribute to the situation they deplore.

I spoke recently at a business school class at one of the nation’s most respected universities. I asked members of the class each to raise a hand if he or she knew the name of his or her member of Congress. Less than half did. I followed up by asking if they knew when the primary would be for Congress in their states in this election year. About 10 percent knew. My response to this display of ignorance was blunt: Don’t complain to me about the quality of members of Congress if you don’t even take the trouble to know who they are, much less do anything about it.

We have a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many critics have only bad things to say about elected officials and tell people that thanks to the Supreme Court, only big money counts, and that politicians do not pay any attention to the voters. That is not now the case, but the more it is propagated, the less untrue it becomes. Tell people that their votes make no difference, and fewer of them will vote.

This phenomenon also affects final elections. For a variety of reasons linked to socioeconomic status, but also attitude, people inclined to support Republicans are more likely to vote in non-presidential elections than Democrats. As of now, Democrats are facing a difficult election season in 2014, not primarily because people who voted for Obama in 2012 have turned against him and the Democrats, but because many of those people will fail to vote.

In summary, first, nonvoting behavior produces an unrepresentative set of elected officials. Then, once members of the House and Senate are in office, they hear disproportionately from people who have very particular interests in a particular issue. People who rarely vote do not have much standing to complain about the outcome of elections. People who never let their members of Congress know what they think about the issues should not be surprised when their unexpressed opinions are not taken into account.

Those who are disappointed with the excessive partisanship in Congress and feel that their viewpoints are not represented have two ways to respond. First, talk to everyone who doesn’t vote and persuade them to do it. Second, let their members of Congress know what they think about issues.

Until we reach that point, I will continue to argue that while the politicians leave a lot to be desired, and the media with its excessive negativism and penchant for divisiveness contributes to the problem, the voters are no bargain either.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram