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Partisan Death Jam: How the Two Parties Are Destroying Our Political System

The new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" explores the adversarial, winner-take-all climate we find ourselves in today that makes governing near impossible.

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Our politics and governing system just doesn’t work very well when one of our parties has strayed – in both policy and process terms – far from the mainstream, because we have a system of separated powers, we have numerous veto points, and it really does require willingness at some point to work across the aisle. If we had a parliamentary system of government, then these parliamentary-like parties would be OK, because you would, through an election, create a majority and that majority (the government) could put its program into place and then be judged accordingly for five years later. But we don’t have that. We have a system in which a minority can frustrate the efforts of the majority, not to simply get a better negotiating position, which is the way in the past it has worked, but to literally stop the new president’s or new majority’s program dead in the water. And that together is what created our dysfunctional politics.

And how does the media contribute to all of this?

I think the “mainstream media,” that is the non-partisan or ideological press, is utterly helpless in the face of the reality that we have right now. That is, the strong journalistic norms of fairness, of balance, of getting the full story, which tends to be interpreted as both sides out, has in effect created a distorted view of what’s happening in the world, and the irony is many individual members of the press know it. So I guess the biggest problem with the press and, again, by that I’m talking about the sort of press that aspires to practice good journalism, and not simply to be a partisan or ideological participant in the political wars, that they have basically assumed that getting both sides, letting the warring parties and individuals speak, is the best way to cover the story and also provide a little safety from charges of political bias. And in so doing, they’ve actually helped to perpetuate the very problems that we have. And I say that as a friend and admirer and regular reader of many, many, many members of that press.

How do you think Obama’s election affected the dysfunctional atmosphere back in 2008?

Let me say, it’s worth looking back to the Clinton presidency, especially the first couple of years and last couple of years. Because he ran on a tax cut, but then was persuaded that he had to do something to deal with deficits and he spent most of his first year trying to do it. He never got a single Republican vote in the House or Senate for this. And he was attacked, subject to dozens of corruption investigations, most of which ended up being bogus, and in the end he was impeached! In 1998, by a Republican House that had just been dealt a setback in the election because of its talk about impeachment. So this has been in the works for some time. But I think Obama has intensified and accelerated it. Certainly his race is a consideration. But so too was the threat of a Democratic president mobilizing constituencies that are growing and potentially putting the Democratic Party in a dominant position. So all of that conspired to convince the Republicans in Congress, who’d just taken a shellacking, to develop a strategy – which is now well-documented – before Obama was inaugurated, to sit together to oppose everything.

In part two of the book, you outline many major institutional changes that you think definitely will, or definitely won’t, work. Can you speak to some of the solutions you do support? 

 
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