It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
Thomas E. Mann
Basic Books, 2012
240 pp., $26.00
The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans
Yale University Press, 2012
232 pp., $40.00
Amy E. Black
Fair and Unbalanced?
In the second section of the book, the authors caution their readers against four possible solutions they label "bromides" that should be avoided at all costs: the creation of a third party, a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and public financing of elections. They then offer three solutions to the current problems: expanding the electorate, converting votes into seats, and changing some campaign finance and spending laws.
Some of their remedies seem promising, such as automating voter registration even further and moving Election Day to the weekend. They wisely call for transformation of the political culture, exhorting political observers, elected officials, and other opinion leaders to denounce those who use vitriolic rhetoric, extreme distortion and lies to score political points. Yet other proposals, such as mandatory voting (cast your ballot or pay a fine), run counter to core American political values.
Many Republicans in Congress do seem to care more about their party than governing. The Tea Party movement has pressured the GOP rightward and made it difficult, if not impossible, for legislators to reach compromises necessary to govern. Mann and Ornstein's descriptions indeed fit the ideology and tactics of some Republican legislators, but such blanket condemnation of the party is an example of the scorn and dismissiveness that the authors rightly criticize in others.
By the end of the book, it seems that Mann and Ornstein have spilled a lot of ink wishing for the bygone days of the Great Society. They are clearly concerned about the anti-government sentiment gaining ground in contemporary politics. If they wanted to write a book defending the need for government and the importance of the social welfare state, they would have provided a constructive contribution to current political debates. But their one-sided attack on Republicans sullies the academic reputation they have earned in their decades of study of Congress.
Mickey Edwards' book began as an article in Atlantic Monthly, "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans," which captured significant attention. Edwards describes his book as an effort to begin a protest against the party polarization threatening the institution of Congress and its constituents.
Edwards dates the current era of partisanship back to Democratic Speaker Jim Wright. He argues that this trend escalated under Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich to extreme partisanship, a pattern of elevating party interest above the public interest that has continued ever since. Unlike Mann and Ornstein, Edwards builds his case with ample evidence from both parties and generally offers even-handed criticism. For example, when he calls out Nancy Pelosi for telling the media her goal as Speaker of the House was to elect more Democrats, he also disparages Mitch McConnell for saying his top Senate leadership priority was preventing Obama's re-election.
After outlining what he views as the most significant problems in governing today, Edwards suggests six reforms. He proposes three changes to the electoral system: moving to open primaries in all states, making the redistricting process nonpartisan, and reforming campaigns to reduce spending and lessen the need for money. He recommends three steps for reforming government itself: eliminate or reduce the influence of parties in congressional leadership, change the rules in the House and Senate to facilitate democratic deliberation, and "rearrange the furniture" in congressional chambers and meeting rooms so that partisans no longer sit together on opposing sides.
Edwards makes a strong case for these reforms, but many of his proposals would significantly change congressional procedures and traditions that, until recently, have worked reasonably well. Although he was unable to convince me that most of his proposals would be possible, I was impressed with his clear and careful explanation of his positions. Both of these books raise important criticisms that citizens of a constitutional democracy need to hear. Contemporary politics rewards political point-scoring more than effective governance, and, contrary to what Mann and Ornstein want you to believe, both parties are at fault. In recent years, some high-profile Republicans and Democrats have lost leadership posts, primary battles, and party support because of their attempts to work across the aisle or refusal to tow the party line. The "throw the bums out" mentality so common in recent elections only exacerbates the problems and encourages party leaders to overpromise and overblame.
We desperately need elected officials who serve with a vision for the long-term interests of their constituents and the nation at large. And we desperately need voters who give elected officials the grace and political room to deliberate, reach agreements, and govern effectively. As long as voters punish elected officials for making hard choices while rewarding candidates who rely on distortion, lies, and fear-mongering, we hinder elected officials from doing their difficult and essential work.
The current election season doesn't offer a lot of hope for improvement—but what better time to pause and reflect on what we expect from our government, our political leaders, and ourselves to serve the common good?
Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College and the author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody Publishers, 2012).