Review of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism”

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a political junkie.  And, I’m a “progressive” or “liberal”, or if you are a conservative, I’m a communist-marxist-Nazi.

Anyway, I like political books, but not the typical polemic books on the right or the left.  Like, I don’t consider Ann Coulter a political writer.

For those who follow politics, you’ve probably heard of this book.  It is written by two gentlemen who work for think tanks, one a conservative and one a liberal.  They’ve written books together in the past, and have set up lots of working groups within Washington DC.  This book created a bit of a stir because they said something nobody likes to talk about, and that thing is that the Republican Party has gone off the rails and is harming the country.

Republicans and conservatives have been utterly dismissive of this book, for obvious reasons.  They wouldn’t want to admit to this.  But most of the media has been dismissive as well.  This is partially because these guys are not entertainers but wonks, so they aren’t going to get much play, but it is also because the media, despite all the claims by Fox that it is “liberal”, doesn’t like to take sides.  If a Republican says something that is factually incorrect, the media scrambles to find some Democrat that says something incorrect, and thus “balance” or something.

I think the big point to make about this book is that, while pointing out how bad the Republicans are behaving, they aren’t saying it is bad because these are bad people (although they do highlight crazy people like Alan West).  What they take the time to do instead is to say, “hey, the Republican Party is behaving like a parliamentary party, which is fine, except that our system of government doesn’t work the way a parliament works, and this causes severe problems.”

In essence, the Republican party behaving this way in, say, England or Australia or Germany would be no big deal – this is how parliamentary parties work – you stand together as a party, you get voted in based upon that party affiliation, and you do what party leadership says.  But American political parties can’t work that way.  We separately elect a President and a Congress, as opposed to electing a party, and if they get the majority, pick the leader (prime minister).  That separation of powers aspect of our Constitution means that being a completely united party in Congress isn’t going to get you much if you don’t have the presidency, and even if you do have the presidency, the President can do things whether you want him to or not, so he (or she) doesn’t really have to listen to you.

Because this is the focus of the book, you can’t really look at it and say “oh, but these guys are just ignoring the Democrats because they want to bash the right and are secretly both liberal”.  No.  These guys do point out areas where Democrats have been somewhat obstructionist, (notably the filibusters of Bush’s judicial appointees), but they also show how what the Democrats have done is nothing like what Republicans are doing now.

Rather than just point fingers and give data as to what is wrong, however, the authors do look for some solutions.  Unfortunately, these solutions are hard, so it can be very hard to see how many of them can work.  The one I liked the best, however, was the concept of “mandatory voting”.  Australia, for example, mandates that you vote (and this is a pretty recent invention – maybe the last 40 years or so).  If you don’t, you pay a fine (small, like $15, and it goes up for repeat offenders, but it is still small).  When you vote, you don’t have to vote for a particular candidate (you can vote for “none of the above”).  In their interviews with Australian politicians, the politicians told them that it completely changes the way they campaign.  They don’t have to work at pumping up their base (because their base is going to vote as required by law), and they don’t have to try to discourage their opponents base to keep them from showing up (because, again, they will show up by law).  Thus, there is less of an appeal to the “wings”, and more of an appeal to the center.

I found this to be a fascinating idea.  If we had mandatory voting, for example, all the crap we went through in 2012 with “voter ID” laws, which even Republicans are now admitting were about  dampening turnout for Democrats, wouldn’t have happened.  That whole fight – gone.  Also, it seems like the power of talk radio, or partisan media like Fox (or if you like, MSNBC), would also lose its appeal – you don’t have to spend 24 hours a day trying to keep your base excited to vote because, well, by law they will vote anyway!

The authors do admit that this would be a hard thing to pull off.  There would naturally be challenges based upon “freedom” (I shouldn’t have to vote if I don’t want to) and all of that.  But the idea was very intriguing.

Now, the book is a little dated – it was written in the spring of 2012, I think, and so there is a lot of looking ahead to the 2012 election, and now that we know what happened, some parts can be skimmed over (not much of a need to even read chapter 7, which is about what we can do in the short term).  Additionally, these guys are wonks.  So, the book has some graphs.  And they speak in somewhat dry language – there aren’t going to be funny anecdotes.  Think about reading a very, very long term paper.

However, even if you don’t think the Republican Party has gone extreme, or even if you do think its gone extreme but the Democrats are “just as bad”, I think you will get something out of the book, as long as you are willing to be driven by data and not a preconceived ideology. It’s not incredibly long (240 pages), but at least 40 of those pages are footnotes.

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