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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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As you say, we devote one chapter to saying what not to do. We try to pare down some horrible ideas that get great credence in the public discussion. We say we need to change our electoral system in ways to increase public participation because that would have diminished some of the intense ideological views expressed by the public as a whole. We need to change the institutional arrangements so that the routinization of the filibuster can be destroyed – it is a modern phenomenon and we have some ideas about that. But in the end, we say it’s the electorate that has to rein in the insurgent outlier, and that’s very problematic just because of the confusion of what would make for a better, more workable system. And so, the odds are, depending on what happens with the economy, that Obama will win. But Republicans could easily hold the House and take the Senate. And therefore, Republicans might be encouraged to basically have the same strategy of opposition as they have now. We argue in the book that it’s the public that produces divided government, but in times of highly polarized parties, that’s a formula for gridlock, inaction and government dysfunction.

And the individual citizens of a democracy must have a role in this change as well.

What the public could do is what democratic theory tells us they would do, which is that if one party goes too far from the mainstream of public thinking, public preferences, accepted democratic processes, they’ll be reined in by the electorate. So an overwhelming across-the-board Democratic vote would probably so shake the Republican Party that those who have been distressed within the party by recent developments would have an opportunity to come forward as a new kind of leadership with alternative programs and platforms. But that seems very unlikely to happen, so what we’re probably going to have is Obama figuring out a way to use the expiration of all of the tax cuts in the beginning of the sequestration of defense and other things as a way to force a compromise with the Republicans because, in this case, the status quo is unacceptable to them.

It’s going to be a tricky bit of maneuvering but I think that the thrust of our argument is all these so-called bipartisan or nonpartisan efforts to sort of bring the parties together and find a bipartisan solution: It’s a pipe dream. It’s ridiculous. It can’t happen. So we’re going to have to figure out, voters and politicians, how to operate in a hyper-partisan system, and hopefully get leverage at times to force action that is actually responsive to the country’s problems.

Looking ahead to the coming election, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, what sort of alternative to corrupt campaign funding do you see?

We argue that efforts on the left for full public financing of elections right now is simply impossible given the interpretations the Supreme Court has made about the First Amendment as applied to money and politics. Such systems have to be voluntary; they get overwhelmed by the independent spending group like, in its latest manifestation, the super PACs, and it’s sort of a pipe dream. There are individuals out there writing books, making the case that money is the root of all evil and if we just get it out of the system our politics will return to a healthy equilibrium. We think there are a lot of problems with money in politics, and we need to deal with them, but the problems go well beyond that. Given the composition of the court, there are only incremental things one can do: increasing transparency, trying to generate more small donations, and looking for ways to improve the process that way. The others are as much pipe dreams as those on the right calling for a balanced budget amendment.

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