Saturday, October 6, 2012

It's Even Worse Than It Looks- Book Review

Breakdown of political party representation in...

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. 

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kc bob said...

Bob Woodward (hardly a conservative) recently released "The Price of Politics". Here is a clip from the NY Times review of it:

"Mr. Woodward writes that “the debt-limit crisis was a time of peril for the United States, its economy and its place in the global financial order” and that “neither President Obama nor Speaker Boehner handled it particularly well,” unable to transcend “their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.”

His harshest words are reserved for Mr. Obama: “It is a fact that President Obama was handed a miserable, faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition.

“But presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business. There is occasional discussion in this book about Presidents Reagan and Clinton, what they did or would have done. Open as both are to serious criticism, they nonetheless largely worked their will.

“Obama has not. The mission of stabilizing and improving the economy is incomplete."

Brian said...

I don't know how a President "works his will", Bob. He has no direct authority over Congress. And, one of the points of this book is things are different now than they were under Clinton and Reagan.

If you have a party that is adamant about making the President a one term President, has meetings before he's inaugurated with that goal in mind, states it boldly and plainly after the mid-term elections, I don't know how the President "works his will".

kc bob said...

Reagan built a great relationship with O'Neill. Clinton figured out how to work with Gingrich. Leaders know how to build these kinds of relationships. Thought that this clip speaks to the issue of how the prez struggled to build such a relationship with Boehner:

"The White House was in such disarray in the wake of the Republicans’ big win in the 2010 midterm elections, Mr. Woodward reports, that when the president went to make a congratulatory call to Mr. Boehner, the incoming House speaker, the Obama staff had to scramble to find a phone number for him, eventually turning to a fishing buddy of somebody who worked for Mr. Boehner."

Anonymous said...

It's so unfortunate. Neither side has our complete interest at heart.

I yearn for simplicity. Great Post.

It reminds me of this video I recently came across-- it's a cute little song about how Jesus and his followers actually Occupy Jerusalem.

Anyways, here it is:

Which, it has a point.