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VINE VOICEon August 25, 2012
There have been a slew of books lately speaking to the problems of our political system and how to reform them, but most only tinker at the margins rather than suggesting more profound and necessary changes. While I certainly enjoyed It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism by Mann and Ornstein and Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Draper amongst many others I found their recommended reforms to be timid half steps, particularly in the face of the crises we face and the general lack of confidence in politicians. Edwards is no stranger to politics, as a multi-term Congressman he's been inside the belly of the beast, knows its deficiencies and weaknesses, and is all too willing to speak plainly about how to fix them. Undoubtedly reader's political leanings will come into play with Democrats refusing to listen because he's a Republican and Republicans denouncing him as a sellout. Yet Edwards isn't interested in assessing blame and indeed feels both parties are guilty of the same practices and bad behavior. The fact that Edwards is catching so much hell from both parties tells me that he must be striking a nerve and more importantly, is on the right track! What Edwards is proposing is pretty radical stuff, but reading over it you'll come to see how necessary it is and how hard it will be to make it happen. The entrenched interests of both parties will make such changes almost impossible and what it will require will be citizens pushing for reform from the ground up; never something easy to make happen.

Edwards lays out a very objective analysis of our current political system and its failings. The closed system of primaries panders only to party loyalists and extremists rather than forcing candidates to moderate their positions. The parties control who is on the primary ballot and small partisan group of party identified voters determine who will represent them in the general election. "Sore Loser" statutes eliminate second place finishers in primary parties who may garner more votes than even the first place finishers in the opposition party's primaries. Congressmen and Senators are fearful of compromise lest they wind up facing primary challenges that could unseat them or leave them vulnerable in the general election. Congressional districts are determined by political parties who divvy them up into as many "safe" districts for their own parties as possible. Money flows freely into Senate and House races from people outside those districts and states who clearly do not share the same interests of citizens who live there. Congressmen and Senators have to adhere to the party line if they want to get committee assignments and failure to get the right committee assignment could be the kiss of death when election time rolls around. House and Senate chambers are even set up to re-enforce this sense of separation with separate lecterns, cloak rooms, seating arrangements, office buildings, and the list goes on and on. The consequence of all this is our current polarized political system that is unwilling to compromise to solve the most serious and vexing problems we are facing. This neo-tribalism is not only counterproductive to developing compromise legislation, but is also leading to a polarization of supporters of both parties and the widespread alienation and disaffection of many average citizens.

Unlike the aforementioned It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism Edwards comes up with solid recommendations that would correct the problems with our current electoral system. Eliminating voter's party affiliation in primaries and elections surely would not be popular, but it would open up the system to unaffiliated and independent voters and force politicians to moderate their positions so as to appeal to a broader electorate rather than pandering to their party's bases. Ending "Sore Loser" statutes would open up the process to those candidates who genuinely receive the most votes regardless of party affiliation. Forcing all candidates regardless of party affiliation to run in one primary would further force politicians to moderate their positions and open up opportunities for third party candidates to get into the final election. Taking the top two winners in a primary certainly could mean two Republicans or two Democrats squaring off in the general election, but if they are less polarized isn't that a good thing? Taking Congressional redistricting out of the hands of politicians and having it handled by non-partisan groups would also eliminate "safe" districts that are Gerrymandered to the point where there's no real sense of community of shared values. I can speak to that as the Congressional District I live in stretches from the very high income upscale Buckhead district of Atlanta up into the very rural corners of Cherokee County. What on earth would an attorney living in Buckhead making six figures have in common with a working class Joe living out in the country? The needs of both locations would be night and day. Eliminating "safe" seats would force politicians to moderate their positions as more voters of the opposing party are drawn into their district and races will become more competitive as a result. Looking at my own Congressional district there have been times where no Democrat has opposed our Republican congressman in the general election: how is that healthy for a pluralistic and competitive democracy? The short answer is, it isn't. And this is how we've wound up with Congress's approval rating sinking so low. Ending the divisions in both the House and Senate, whether literal like the separate lecterns, offices, cloak rooms, or other facilities, or larger spoils like committee assignments would also go a great ways towards more competition of ideas rather than a pack of vultures fighting over the spoils.

Edwards is clearly a populist and is putting America ahead of party affiliation although he remains a Republican at heart. "The Parties Versus the People" is a warning shot across the bow to both parties and politicians notifying them they had better become the agents of change or the people will start to take matters into their own hands. And indeed that very change is starting to happen as witnessed in California and Washington where voter initiatives created open primaries. As Edwards points out, 24 states have petition initiatives to create just these sorts of changes and if politicians don't take the lead then citizens will have to get involved. So much of what Edwards writes here reflects my own opinions and he sums up the best of our 9/11 world; everyone regardless of party should sit together, we are all Americans and should be focused on doing what's best for our country and not their party. It should be one congress, one country. Everything Edwards puts forward is doable...I only hope that people read this, regardless of party affiliation, take it to heart and start pressing for action. I know I will!
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on August 19, 2012
Imagine a place where there are two groups of people. They sit on opposite sides of the room, divided by a wide aisle. When they want to address the group, they walk up to a podium in the front of the room but there are separate podiums, one for each group. If they want to leave for awhile, there are two separate doors, each leading to a separate room on opposite sides of the main room. If someone from one group should go into the other group's room, they are looked upon suspiciously. You might think this room is in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue or in a deeply segregated community, but it isn't. The room is in Washington DC and is the home of the US Congress, in the case of the podium, the House of Representatives.
Former Congressman Mickey Edwards describes this scene in chapter eight of his new book, THE PARTIES VERSUS THE PEOPLE: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans. In it, he points out several reasons that the political situation today is so divisive and suggests ways for it to change for everyone's benefit. His main point is it's the system that's broken and until it's repaired, there won't be change because the current method rewards the extremists while doing nothing to encourage cooperation. Imagine just seating people in order of seniority regardless of their political label. They would have a chance to get to know each other as people and talk about issues not as enemies on the other side of a battle zone.
He writes of how our Founding Fathers warned against political parties. In his farewell address, George Washington stated, "They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community."
Today, that fear is a reality. Primary elections allow a small group of people, usually those who are focused on the party and one or two key (for them) issues, rather than the citizens as a whole to choose whose names appear on the ballot. In states where the nominees are selected through a caucus, that may be just a couple hundred people making that decision for the entire state. If the best candidates are from the same party or are not either a Democrat or Republican, the chances of them appearing on the ballot, let alone being elected, are very slim. He proposes open primaries to overcome that obstacle.
In addition, the legislative districts are usually established every decade by a group representing the party in control of the state government. Too often its main concern is expanding the number of office holders from its party and protecting the seats of incumbents. Gerrymandering is a typical result.
He recognized that it currently takes a lot of money to run for office, more than the office itself pays. Many of the donors are seeking access to the official and expect to get their money's worth. Appointments are sometimes given as rewards for raising the most money, not for the ability or interest of the official. In addition, the time spent raising money takes away from the time the official is spending doing the job. A lot of money is given by people are not constituents and may live thousands of miles from the district.
The Supreme Court decision saying that corporations are people has had a tremendous impact on who is able to run and get their message out. Think of the Nevada man donating $100,000,000 to help his candidates win this year.
The controlling party uses its power to prevent the other side's ideas from being part of the debate both by picking who can sit on a committee, who can speak, and who can offer amendments.
Members of Congress, as part of their oath, say, "....I take this obligation freely, without any reservation of purpose of evasion...." In reality, many have already made up their minds about how they are going to vote on issues, some even have signed an oath before they were placed on the ballot, before they take the oath and totally ignore this part of it.
Too often members are told how to vote by the senior members of their party and act as a rubber stamp. They should be using their own knowledge and judgement and voting to represent their constituents and their county, not their party.
He points out that Congress and the President are equal branches of the same tree (with the Supreme Court as the third equal branch). When a person is elected President, he/she is not the head of the party but the head of the government and should be serving the interests of all Americans, not just those of his/her party.
Our country talks about being the best democracy in the world and "we promote democracy in other countries but have surrendered it here." Too many people don't vote because they think their vote doesn't count. THE PARTIES VERSUS THE PEOPLE places blame on both parties and provides suggestions on how to improve the situation.
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on August 18, 2012
Currently approximately 90 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress functions (or doesn't function). This dysfunctionality is largely due to the polarization of the political parties and their elected members. Mickey Edwards was a member of the House of Representatives for 16 years and was a member of the senior leadership of the Republican Party. As such he is in a unique position to analyze the causes and effects of the current dysfunction. In this book he recommends realistic steps to reverse the polarization and to return politics to a more civil atmosphere where members of both parties are more willing to compromise and act in the interest of the American people. I would highly recommend this book to all Americans who disapprove of the way the political process is currently operating and are looking for a realistic means to reverse the present political process.
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on October 7, 2012
As Edwards correctly observes, American voters are angry at and have a low opinion of Congress; they know the system is broken in that it serves the interests of wealthy campaign contributors rather than the electorate, and yet year after year, the people return most of these worthies (or ones like them) to Washington to perpetuate what is unquestionably a travesty of democracy. The answer to the seeming paradox of the majority of the electorate voting against its own interests is simple: voters are given no other choice. Big Money selects the candidates to be presented to the people at election time, backs their campaigns, and as a consequence, installs the best politicians money can buy who will reliably enact legislation favorable to the moneyed interests who installed them. Republicans and Democrats, alas, are opposite wings of the same bird, beholden to the moneyed interests comprising its head.

The fatal flaw in Edwards' well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate bundle of remedies is that it fails to sever the umbilical cord between Big Money and the electoral process, thereby continuing to limit the available choices of candidates to those selected by and in the service of a wealthy elite. No amount of symbolic rearranging of podiums and cloakrooms, no attempt at finding "non-partisan" redistricting boards, etc., will change the reality of the democratic political system serving the interests of those who empower it; and presently, those providing "the mother's milk of politics," -- money -- are the ones doing the empowering.

The knee-jerk solution offered by those aware of these basic truths is public financing of political campaigns. However, public financing will remain a pipe dream as long as the present crew of politicians remain in power, because private funding keeps them in office, making it unlikely they will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

There is a solution, however, to this seemingly intractable quandary.
A new democratic political process bypassing Big Money and TV will be required -- one that restores power to the people by actively reengaging them in participative democracy, rather than succumbing passively to Big Money's political propaganda administered in 8-second sound bites in 30-second ads on TV.

This new political process involves both a change of venue and a change of media. The new venue is neighborhood theaters (rather than Barcaloungers at home) electronically linked by the new medium of the Internet (replacing TV).

Imagine millions of people converging on virtually every movie theater in America on Saturday mornings, when the theaters are normally empty, paying ten bucks at the door for the privilege of participating in first local, then city-wide, then county-wide, then state-wide, and ultimately national assemblies with every auditorium linked electronically via the Internet. Today's multiplex theaters provide multiple auditoriums where individuals can go to discuss and debate their preferred issue, devising platforms, identifying spokespersons and leaders who will then carry their message both horizontally to the other Internet-linked auditoriums doing the same for a broad spectrum of issues, and vertically, to linked auditoriums discussing any given issue. The net result would be to hammer out a consensus on the issues through participatory democracy and the elevation of leaders within the movement to stand for election and carry the people's message to the centers of political power, ultimately enacted into law.

For further details, read Chapter 8 in "The Predicament: How did it happen? How bad is it? The case for radical change now!" available at Amazon Kindle. [...]
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on April 21, 2015
Thank you, Mr. Edwards. I have been arguing for and encouraging some vague non-partisan cause for years. But, he wrote a book about it, collecting many of my own thoughts (and I'm sure many other people's) and I love it. First, unlike some political tomes, it is extremely readable and short - he avoids repeating himself much. Many of his points and examples are neither original or rocket science, but I did learn some things in it. But, it is more the overall argument that is important to me, with examples almost secondary. We've let these two parties take over our government. That was not the way it was supposed to be or should be and it hurts our democracy.

Having said all that, there are times I wonder if I'm wrong and he's wrong. Very often in life progress does not come from rational calm compromise, but from hard, sometimes vicious fights where one side wins completely, and then, once feeling safer, either relents or there is a slow painful crawl towards better government or more freedom. Our whole history is filled with examples. To give just one, consider England's march towards religious freedom. England's government provided it after the Glorious Revolution - but not for Catholics. In fact, Catholicism was greatly diminished at that time in England. Nevertheless, in a few decades, religious freedom was given to Catholics too by the majority Protestants. A second example - strong unity throughout this country was formed in time only after the South was soundly defeated in our own Civil War. You can argue that at the end, there has to be a spirit of compromise at some point and I don't disagree. But, you note in these examples, it did not develop in a collegial way. Certainly that is possible for humans and sometimes happen, but, very often, it is not the way we humans work.

I've heard him speak (which is how I was turned onto this book) and I don't think he is delusional about the possibilities of there being improvement anytime soon. But, you have to start somewhere and he did.
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on October 14, 2012
You have to read this book if you have been frustrated at the workings of our government. If you were shocked to hear the main work for the republicans was going to be sure Obama was only a one term president just weeks after he took office, you have to read this book. No, it is not a slam on republicans; democrats are just as much to blame. The author himself served in Congress as a republican but became frustrated with the realization that our governing factions had become "clubs"; my club versus your club. I remember civics being very boring in school. This civics lesson is not boring. The suggestions on how to take our government back so it works for the good of all people are specific and motivating. There are minor changes that could take place today and more involved changes that will take some time to institute but nothing that is unreasonable if we the people become motivated to change things to work as they should.
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on June 30, 2014
Finally, I've discovered a modern-day Conservative applying rational thought, critical thinking, and basic logic. Our political system has gone mad. As a moderate, I don't fit in anywhere anymore and the fear and hate mongers are infecting me with fear-based philosophies. I am more afraid of them than I am the dangers they espouse. Please citizens. Wake up. Read Mickey Edwards book and rise up against selfish, uncompromising radicals who are being manipulated and bullied by power mongers. They are in turn bullying those of us in the center. Our politicians, Democrat and Republican, are not working for us. To survive in the current environment, they must work for their parties who are "owned" by corporations, the powerful, and the wealthy. They are "bought," every last one. Everyone should read this sensible, powerful book written by a thoughtful man whose motivations are unselfish, intelligent, and reasonable.
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on November 4, 2013
I agree with Edwards' assessment of the dysfunction in our government but I was hoping he would have concentrated a little more ink to what I think is the missing solution. The founding fathers placed "Freedom of the Press" in the very first amendment to the Constitution because they realized the need for an informed electorate if we were going to be self-governing and the only way to inform the public was through a free press. However, while today's press is free it is biased to the point where the people are not getting the truth. Couple that with an apathetic electorate and most of the author's solutions simply won't work.

One positive that I took from the book is the following paragraph: The oath of office requires loyalty to the Constitution--not to the president, to a political party, or to any outside organization demanding fealty. No man or woman should enter Congress with divided loyalties. It is time for every candidate to refuse to sign any pledge, or take any oath, other than to "fully discharge the duties upon which they are about to enter. So help me God." Maybe we should be more forceful in removing those who violate their oath to the Constitution.
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on April 25, 2016
What a breath of fresh air! A copy of this book should be given to every sitting Republican and Democrat currently in office, to show them how it "should be done" - as well as those who are newly elected!
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on July 18, 2015
Read this book and learn just how our two political parties have a stranglehold on elections an electorate. This book is a well thought out criticism of the parties. It comes complete with ideas on how we can take back our Democratic Republic.
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