on May 1, 2012
What this book IS NOT is another silly polemic designed for the polarized Sunday talk shows. This is a careful, thoughtful discussion of the problems at the heart of our dysfunctional Congress.
This is a book every American should read. It discusses the problems that led to this, it discusses bromides that should be rejected and proposes thoughtful solutions that are well reasoned even if some may be difficult politically to implement.
Check out NPR's April 30 edition of Morning Edition for an interview with the authors.
The authors are political scientists who've studied Congress for 4 decades and aren't just talking head political pundits. They don't let the Democrats off the hook but they lay the chief blame for the current dysfunction in Congress upon the Republicans. Their reasoning is based based on a number of factors. High on the list are the tactics Republican Congressional leaders employed during the ceiling debt fiasco of 2011 (see update below). It is the authors' judgment that by implying to the world that Republicans preferred to have the US default on its debt rather than have a compromise with the Democrats that included revenue as part of the agreement, the Republicans took Congressional dysfunction to a new extreme.
The authors make a good case. But what makes this book really fascinating is the level of scholarship, the wealth of political science material and the long term view.
For example, there is a graph of party polarization as calculated by roll call votes. It shows that the polarization is at an all time extreme since 1879, 133 years ago. This speaks to the seriousness of what faces this country. This speaks to the desperate need for our political parties to cooperate enough to govern instead of sabotaging government. There is another graph showing the expanded use of cloture voting in the Senate.
For those who are all ready well informed about the complex and sometimes bizarre rules of Congress, this will still likely enrich one's knowledge. For those who haven't yet dived into the history and rules of Congress, this is an excellent book in one's education.
I believe this book is sure to become a political science classic. I rarely give anything 5 stars, but do so unhesitatingly for this book.
Update June 5, 2012
This book is often on my mind and has given me a lot to chew on. I wanted to express some sympathy for those who mostly lean toward the GOP in their politics and offer a thought that might help them better tolerate this book. The authors' main targets are not GOP ideology or policies. Their motivation for writing this book stems from GOP tactics and methods of the last 1-4 years. Their claim is that it is the GOP who introduced major unprecedented and extreme tactics with the debt ceiling vote as well as excessive Senate holds and filibusters. So it can help to leave the ideology muck aside and just look at how Congress functions (or doesn't) as if one were a clinician. It is in that light that the authors say:
"Some readers may be struck by a lack of balance in our treatment of the two major political parties. We hope they understand that we do not seek to advance a personal ideological or partisan agenda. Rather, we believe that imbalance or asymmetry reflects a regrettable reality that is too often obscured in the traditional media and among serious scholars of American democracy. We want two vibrant and constructive political parties that can compete vigorously for the votes of Americans and fight hard for their views in political and policy arenas."
I've supported both Dem and GOP candidates in the past, but I think the authors make their case for our current times. There are a lot of comments among the reviews here that jump into policy or ideology debates, but IMHO that is missing the focus of this book. I also think that most Americans have a poor grasp for what the debt ceiling vote is about and what the consequences might have been if that vote had not passed.
The level of anger and inability (or refusal) to listen to each other among the polarized sides of this mess is an indicator of political cancer. I'm sick of it from both sides, but that won't stop me from continuing to learn from this terrific book.
on May 1, 2012
Two respected policy analysts, one from a liberal think tank, the other from a conservative one, have stated for us news junkies a verity which is obvious, yet not well understood in its implications for conducting future sane policies.
As a former Republican when moderate Republicans were uncricified in that Party, I can well appreciate their concerns as stated in their May 1, 2012 Washington Post article: "It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharp0ly to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate---think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel--are virtually extinct."
The implications for that extremism are dramatic. Inability to compromise or to make any connections with the other party means (again from the Post piece) "When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."
In short, they write, "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in Americn politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of is political opposition."
They mention the charge reminisent of Joe McCarthy from Congressman Allen West (R-Fl) who stated that "78 to 81" Democrats in Congress are members of the Communist Party, regretting that virtually no Republican challenged that absurd comment.
This situation produced almost complete gridlock, as issues such as our obscenely huge debt, health care reform and climate change are lost in Republican embrace of ideologies which lead to no decisions.
This stark book needs wide embrace by independent voters who will determine the next election.
The authors, Mann and Ornstein, took up residence at the Brookings Institute (Mann) and the American Enterprise Institute (Ornstein), helping ensure objectivity; usually this also ensures that any conclusions are vague and mushy. Not here - their 'bottom-line' is that today's Congressional Republicans behave like they were in a British parliamentary, winner-take-all system. The problem is that such 'ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional' doesn't work in our 'separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficulty for majorities to work their will.' (My one criticism of this book is that it didn't really explain why the English system works in England and not in America.)
Republicans are now 'more loyal to party than to country,' and the political system hobbled and unable to address serious problems and threats. They are scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of Democrats' legitimacy.
The most glaring example is how House Republicans addressed the need to raise the debt ceiling in 2011. And its going to be repeated in 2013, per Senator McConnell in a Fox News statement.
Adding to this partisan warfare is the increased role of money on our politics - the worst of any time in over a century, possibly ever.
The authors grant former Speaker Gingrich special dishonor - painting the House as elitist, corrupt and arrogant when the Democrats controlled. His strategy - convince voters the institution was so corrupt that anyone wold be better than the Democratic incumbents. Further, his partisan attacks on adversaries created a new norm in which colleagues with differing views became mortal enemies, created the permanent campaign, and prioritized electoral goals over policy. (A current example - Rep. West, Florida Republican's recent assertion that there are 78 - 81 Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party - a ridiculous statement that has yet to be condemned by Republican congressional leaders or presidential candidates.)
Grover Norquist offers another example of the take-no-prisoners approach. His Taxpayer Protection Pledge binds signers to never support a tax increase or close tax loopholes - as of the end of 2011 it had been signed by 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 of the 47 GOP senators. Other pledges have followed - eg. opposing climate change, that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. Failure to sign such pledges makes a primary challenge too likely. Loud denunciation of 'ObamaCare' has become a litmus test for anyone hoping to be called a 'conservative.'
Mike Lofgren, veteran Republican congressional staffer, ended his career last year after almost thirty years. He wrote, 'The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party . . . and more like an apocalyptic cult, or intensely ideological authoritarian parties of earlier Europe.'
Republicans in the Senate now repeatedly abuse the confirmation process to block innumerable nominees.
The news media also don't escape criticism - for failing to cover how the Republican Party has been transformed, and simply writing stories that imply both sides are equally implicated. The authors contend the media will have to start being more objective.
Bottom-Line: "It's Even worse Than It Looks" is level-headed, and fits well with other reports - eg. Chris Mooney's analysis of Republican psychological attributes and their chronic denial of, and ignoring facts. (Republican anti-intellectualism makes it easier to believe/claim government can do no good and shouldn't get more tax money.) The book also fits well with Amazon reviewers assessment of even marginally political books - those not fitting conservative ideology are regularly and uniformly panned, as well as those that condemn works that do. Practitioners of Republican politics are now dominated by vacuous ideology.
In this only partially adequate examination of the state of national politics, the authors easily demonstrate that the Republican Party is so entirely consumed with maintaining power and ideological purity that it is willing to pursue an agenda harmful to the nation. One needs look no further than the so-called debt crisis of 2011 which the Republicans precipitated resulting in considerable financial distress to the nation. One has to look far in American history to find such irresponsibility and recklessness. As hard-hitting as this book most certainly is, the authors really do not get to the core of the problem.
This book is inadequate in understanding how the political system has become so dysfunctional. It is only mildly helpful to point to the polarizing tactics introduced by Newt Gingrich in the 1970s. American politics does not transpire in a vacuum; to greater or lesser extent, our politics does reflect the political sophistication of the public, as well as the distribution of power in American society. The public's alleged unhappiness with Washington is apparently trumped by more fundamental thinking and forces.
First, it has to be recognized that the American public has been so propagandized over the last four decades with so-called free-market ideology that big business and the rich are essentially given a free pass on their machinations, regardless of how harmful. In fact, the extent of the propaganda is seen in that the financial meltdown of 2008 is now seen in many quarters as an example of too much governmental intervention. As the authors note, Washington is awash in money, which essentially means that the rich control American politics. And that is the primary agenda of the Republican Party: do the will of the rich regardless of harm to average Americans. Unfortunately, the average Joe Blow buys into this simplistic market ideology, failing to recognize the immense harm that has been done to him under its tenets.
And then there are the so-called social conservatives, or fanatics in some quarters, who want to see their version of morality imposed on the entire nation. Such groups will cling to any party who so much as pays lip-service to their agenda. The Republican Party has become quite adept at pandering to social conservatives, while pursuing policies favorable to the rich. Much of the public is at best indifferent towards politics, or more likely simply ignorant, and is quite vulnerable to the misrepresentations and demonization that the political right excels in. The remainder of the public, knowledgeable and engaged, is simply swamped by these extremist forces.
Oddly enough, given the state of American political affairs, the authors seem fairly optimistic that their ideas for reform can work. Yet all of their changes require initiative from either the public or from within government, which contradicts the entire thrust of the book. In actuality, political and economic matters in the US are far worse than what the authors contend. Over the last few decades, to name only a couple of developments, the American economy has been hollowed out in the name of "free-trade," and the redistribution of wealth to the top one percent is unprecedented. Other than the quite small "Occupy" movement, there is scarcely any recognition that the US has entered an entirely new era. It is an era where powerful interests will control what develops in the US, and the obfuscating tactics of the Republican Party are a key part of that agenda.
on May 15, 2012
I rarely comment on political items. For the most part in my view politics are like shifting desert sands, ideas and politicians come and go. (That being said, taxes are like mountains, large and ever lasting)
That being said the last couple of years have really made me aggravated with how little American politics has accomplished. Watching a debate in congress is like watching two little kids in the back of a car poke at each other on a road trip. It's loud, boisterous, and not accomplishing anything. I usually vote for whomever I think will do the best job and as such don't consider myself in allegiance with any one party. It has been my observation since Gore vs Bush that the Republicans however are no longer at all interested in any sort of compromise. This is even more true since Obama became president.
This book more eloquently states that point of view and backs it up with many facts and citations throughout the book (at least in the kindle version I purchased). In brief, it shows why Mitch McConnells statement that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" has become the guiding principle of Republican politics and that our system is hopelessly mired in partitionship.
Its an excellent book, and frankly the fact that both a democrat and republican from two very ideologically different think tanks came together to write it shows how bad it really is in America.
I think in my entire life I've read one political science book. While I love talking politics and religion, I'm not one who "studies" politics or tries to systematize it. However, when I saw the authors of this book on television recently, I needed to know more about this book because I, like most Americans, have a deep level of concern about the dysfunction of our government. I think I can safely say that most Americans agree with me that government is broken, given that Congress' approval rating is around 10%.
In It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism the authors- one from the Brookings Institute, a respected left or center-left think tank and one from the American Enterprise Institute, a respected conservative think tank, take on not only why our system is so broken but lay out some possible solutions to the problem.
The book focuses on the gridlock in Congress. Obviously, we have a strong two party system. When I say strong, I mean as in each party is well defined. One more so than the other. Again, I think most people would agree that Democrats and Republicans are not working well together. But, why is it that they can no longer seem to agree on the most simple or obvious things? Because we are so deeply divided as a country, it seems any analysis has to lay equal blame on both parties to not be declared "partisan" by the other side. The authors of this book go out on a limb to try to call it as they see it. Their conclusion is that one side has veered far away from the center and is dug in- unwilling to compromise on anything and is using the rules (particularly those of the Senate) to make sure it's their way or the highway.
The authors know the dangers of their conclusion and despite saying several times in the book that for us to break this impasse, we have to start by the public and the media and more moderate members of the Republican Party start just calling it as they see it, the authors are very careful to point out the Democrats' contributions to the problem. It's as if they're trying to keep the book balanced, even though they acknowledge the problem is not equal on both sides. For example:
We have noted, for example, that Democrats' arrogance and condescension toward the minority over their forty years of majority reign contributed in no small measure to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, and we criticized the Democrats for their departures from the regular order during their renewed majority status after 2006.
However, the authors are so bold as to point out the problem is asymmetrical and are calling on others to do the same.
A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don't treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way.
The book covers the recent history of how we got to this place, gives examples of the problem in action in Congress and lays out some possible solutions- some that would have to come from within government itself (I'm not hopeful about that one), some that are way too blue-sky, but some that we the people might actually be able to do. Of course, the authors assume that we want a working government and most of their suggestions seem to lean toward getting more "moderates" in office. There are some people (hopefully not many) who like things the way they are. They want more extremists in government and have no problem with a little short term pain (like a downgrade in our credit rating) for long term gain (making Obama a one term President). Mitch McConnell- "Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term".
I think one of the problems with this book will be getting the people who need to read it to read it. Democrats and Liberals will have no problem saying "It's Republicans who are the problem" and will snatch it up- nodding their heads most of the way through. Independents might think "Well, I don't want to read a book that just blames one side. I'd rather read a book that takes a more 'balanced' approach". I think most Republicans will reject the book out-of-hand before even picking it up.
I was accused of reading this book just to reinforce my own biases. Interestingly enough that was by a guy who doesn't even know me. He read my one sentence comment I posted from my Kindle the night I finished the book. I said: "Unfortunately, I think our country is probably already too divided to benefit from it." The guy who criticized me (after that one sentence summary) read the summary on Amazon and concluded it was an "unbalanced" (my word) book and seems to have rejected it the way I would anticipate most conservatives will. That makes me sad. I only hope that moderate Republicans will come to their senses and take their party back, for all our sakes. I don't want to destroy the Republican Party.
If you need evidence of how skewed the Republican Party has become, there's plenty in the book. But, without looking at the book, look at the demographics. In the last Presidential election 95% of the African-American vote went to the Democrat. In the election before that, it was 88%. Mitt Romney is polling near 0% for African-American voters. Latinos are expected to go for Barack Obama something like 70/30 or possibly even 80/20 in November. Lindsey Graham (a prominent Republican) recently said: "The demographics race we're losing badly. [sic] We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.". Some Republicans are beginning to recognize they're not playing a smart long-term game. That's reason for hope.
The intent of this book, I believe is not to bash the Republican Party or to marginalize it any more than it is marginalizing itself, the purpose is to restore our two party system to one with more balance and one that can effectively govern. That can't happen when one party is going off the rails, particularly with the rules we have in the Senate that effectively allows the minority party to take the whole country hostage.
Overall, I give the book 4 stars out of 5. Some of the solutions given are just to impractical to be worth giving much consideration and, even though it's short, it went into a bit too much detail for someone not really into political science. It should, however, be required reading for anyone in Congress.
on May 16, 2012
I'm not sure that some of the 1-star reviewers have actually read this book. It is not, in fact, holding up one party as polished perfection and subjecting the other to scorn; a big point here is about nuance, and that nuance is missing from the political argument.
With that, they do raise the point of what they call "asymmetric polarization" - which could be summed up in layman terms as "both sides do bad stuff, but one side does it a lot more consistently and yet talks about it more". The examples are well illustrated, and reviews that attempt to dismiss the book as hack journalism are ignoring a lot of significant points (about both parties) that the authors have gone to great trouble to make.
on May 4, 2012
I'm not surprised that Republicans will spend time on polarized, idealogical bashing of this excellent book - it's about how their polarized, idealogical bashing has helped to create system where collaboration and coming to the table for the better of the nation is a lost art. As an ex-Republican, old enough to absolutely understand (and watched most of this happen), their book should be required reading for every voting adult. What I found different about this book: 1) They are both political scholars with decades of research to back up their ideas; 2) they are from both parties; 3) there is no venomous hatred going on - just facts and sound critique of both sides; but most importantly: Suggestions that Americans can get behind that will help. I will be using their ideas going into the voting booth this fall, and in getting behind important initiatives to bring thoughtful statesmen and stateswomen back into government.
on May 4, 2012
In the beginning of their book, Mann & Ornstein (M&O) state that their goal is to clarify the source of dysfunctional politics and then explore some opportunities for changing it. Their thesis is that much of the problem has evolved because of the actions of the Republican Party over the last 40 years -- mainly because Republicans have been, not always, but primarily the minority party as the Great Society social welfare programs have evolved. At that point in the Introduction before Chapter 1 even begins, and despite what feels like a balanced consideration of how the parties have diverged, the book becomes partisan for Republicans -- as some of the early reviews already indicate.
In his just-published book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney comes at this same issue with a "scientific" review of why this has happened. Obviously that -- not to mention the book's title -- immediately raised the ire of that partisan audience, and the conservative backlash to his book has focused on his use of what he calls science. M&O attempt to explain this gap differently by using a historical, sociological, and even demographic analysis of how the parties and their stronghold regions have shifted since the Civil War. How political events like Goldwater's conservatism in 1964, the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 and other political events and decisions helped to lay down the battle lines. They describe how Gingrich saw the opportunity to benefit from the American "throw the bums out" mentality to brilliantly orchestrate a "never give in" strategy from 1978 to 1994 ... targeting not just Democrats but even the leaders of his own party leading up to his eventual Speakership.
M&O then discuss how those growing partisan feelings have filtered down to the electorate. How party activists like delegates to national conventions, primary officials, local opinion leaders, and finally the voters themselves took up the gauntlet themselves. Through a multi-faceted discussion, they describe how voters became more eager and polarized than non-voters, how more educated and informed voters became more antagonistic than less informed voters, etc. They show how people moved into neighborhoods, states and regions based on their political leanings, and how older Republicans retiring to the South started to shift political strongholds until the South was firmly Republican and the Northeast and West Coast firmly Democratic. Where Mooney focused on Fox News in his book, M&O give a broader analysis of how people got their news from the 3 major networks and their newspapers in the 50's, but how today we have thousands of political television, radio and Website choices with a new layer of blogs, YouTube's and smart phone apps for good measure. It's the perfect storm of fragmentation and polarization as we cannot only read what the pundits think but also throw in our own 2¢.
This first part of the book is really quite toned down from Mooney's and yet you still feel that any kind of criticism will blunt honest conversation between the parties. I've wondered why the parties don't worry with such statistics as "Congress now has a 9% approval rating." Democrats do seem to worry about it and use it as campaign fodder. For Republicans, it's a strategy because--having that minority mentality--they feel like voters will punish the Democrats for failing to get anything done. Such competing mindsets show how difficult it is to focus on compromise when the rules of the game are so different for the combatants.
In the second part of their book, M&O focus on what can be done to change these mindsets. First they explain how using some of the common prescriptions -- like a third-party campaign, balanced budget amendment, term limits, and campaign financing -- would probably make things worse. Their list of fixes feel smaller and slower -- expanding the electorate, minimizing filibustering and holds, using credible sources and even technology to "shame" people who lie and connive. They warn us that there will not be one big thing that reverses this trend ... that such smaller efforts over time will be necessary to get the parties focused on working together to solve real problems.
It's interesting that so many books like this are being published. The pace will certainly increase as the election approaches. Authors like Mann & Ornstein, Rachel Maddow and Chris Mooney seem to share the sentiment that if people only knew what the problem is and how it developed, then they might be motivated to change and more open to thinking differently. I guess it helps in the long term to think about these things ... to understand how and why some people go off the rails when they go for the political jugular in social media. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Congratulations to Mann & Ornstein for giving it a shot.
on August 16, 2015
Off of the suggestion of Paul Krugman (reliably liberal economist from the New York Times) I picked this little book up. There’s a sense among the optimistic in this country that this period of hyperpartisanship is fleeting, and it will abate itself in due time as cooler heads prevail. What this book does, however, is give a very convincing argument that Washington, in essence, is a microwave, due to systemic exploits that allow the minority party an almost unlimited ability to obstruct the policy of the majority – from big initiatives like the Affordable Care Act, to even the smallest of judicial appointments being bogged in filibusters and cloture votes. What were once rarely-used procedural stalls are now used on a routine basis – and what’s worse is they are now paired with a zealous pragmatism for the party that stands most against government (the Republican Party) to sabotage government institutions for its own electoral game. Once you see it for what it is, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to see a future where this is not only going to get worse, but could cause a collapse in all semblance of reasonable governing ability as our government, due to the bomb-throwing, limps from crisis to crisis, powerless to act.
The book was a solid, fact-based argument that this is not a fleeting destructiveness in our national dialogue but a likely permanent and worsening condition that undermines the very idea of democratic government to the benefit of one political party that is no longer interested in dialogue with a party they increasingly see as baby-killing America-hating tyrants.
The breath of fresh air from this book is that it doesn’t stake the ground of the muddled middle and make the standard “both sides need a babysitter” appeal – although the Democrats have been responsible for engaging in some of this horseplay, the blame mostly rests on the Republican Party for some of the more egregious violations of good faith, such as the reckless shutting down of the federal government in 2011 that revealed leadership was openly considering government as a “hostage to be ransomed” (McConnell’s words) rather than an institution that would work for the benefit of all of the American people.
The book shines light on a growing problem and insists that it is not going to correct itself on its own. What I feel the book inadequately addressed was how the obvious inadequacies of the U.S. Constitution is primarily responsible for the gridlock and the bomb-throwing. The Republicans tsk tsk the Democrats and their judicial activists for not following an originalist perspective; that is, a perspective that binds government action to what the U.S. Constitution meant to those who wrote it and its amendment. This gives them the staging ground they need to launch into attacks that the Democrats are not sufficiently devoted to the sacraments of our founders, to delegitimize their opponents. Meanwhile there is a sense that Republicans, by destroying the government and privatizing society, also do not believe in the U.S. Constitution – in an environment that everything is privatized, what good is the U.S. Constitution for a government drowned in its own bathtub of toxic waste? The dysfunction, therefore, has its roots in the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution – one side wants to interpret it liberally and read it with the perspective of a 21st century mind, whereas the other wants to hold government exactly to what the U.S. Constitution meant to yeoman farmers in the late 1700’s. Either way spends the U.S. Constitution as a force of law – but it is not so much the goal that the two-party system disagrees on, but their differing methods that causes all the acrimony and bitterness between the two. At the same time, neither party can bring themselves to really admit the repeal of the U.S. Constitution as an authority of law is the primary goal – because the U.S. Constitution biases a two-party system, and in the event of its collapse, it could bring about an entirely new dynamic which could see both of these parties as relics of history. One party wants to bring the U.S. Constitution into the 21st century (with a potential unmooring of its guiding principles, redefining the entire nation, its purpose and its law) whereas the other party wants the interpretation to be firmly stuck in 1700’s jurisprudence (with a potential collapse of laws now unable to respond to current governing needs, privatizing the entire nation).
This book is a good read. It jogs you to accepting that the Obama era is not just a blip of hostility in our otherwise staid democratic methods, but the beginning of a possibly permanent collapse in our system of government and its ability to respond to real needs and real problems.