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Think Again: Political Dysfunction Summer Reading

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The book business moves slowly. Our political dysfunction has been obvious for many years, but the topic is only now making its way into the nation's bookstores in a sustained fashion.

The most prominent, at least in media terms, is the book by the two veteran Congress watchers -- the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein -- called It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. When an excerpt appeared in The Washington Post, it spent many days at the top of the newspaper's most-read online list of articles, resulted in more than 5,000 comments, and was tweeted about more than 3,000 times.

Mann and Ornstein argue that, "Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process ... endangering our very system of constitutional democracy .... the conservatives have become ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime [and have] ... led Congress--and the United States -- to the brink of institutional collapse."

Above all, they call on the media, as well as the public at large, to focus on the true causes of dysfunction rather than just throwing the bums out every election cycle. As Mann explained to the Columbia Journalism Review:

There is a strong tendency on the part of the mainstream media to avoid taking sides -- in other words, to avoid reaching conclusions that put the onus of our dysfunctional politics on one party or another or on one candidate or another. Reporters admirably embody professional norms favoring fairness and nonpartisanship. But too often even the most talented and dedicated reporters, especially in these partisan times with media watchdogs on the constant lookout for bias, retreat to a formulaic "he says/she says" or "both parties are to blame" that imposes a false equivalence on the underlying reality. Reporters don't want to be charged with partisan bias, and their editors and producers have strong professional and economic incentives to avoid such charges. The safe response is to insist on "balance," even if the phenomenon is clearly unbalanced. In their quest to be fair and balanced, they misinform and disarm a public trying to fix our dysfunctional politics.

Funnily enough, the part of the book that blamed the media for its construction of false "balance" was the part that the New York Time's Michael Crowley explained--in an otherwise respectful review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review -- might be a problem with no solution. Crowley said:

It's not clear that journalists can solve the problems they describe, especially as increasing numbers of voters consume partisan "news" that affirms their pre-existing beliefs. Nor is it clear that more nuanced reporting would restrain the powerful passions that have been ignited by America's long-running economic trauma.

The fact that the problems with partisan news are not being explored -- at least in most mainstream news publications, which pride themselves on "balance" -- would hardly appear to be a reason to reject their likely success.

Indeed, the views of Mann and Ornstein are echoed from an insider perspective in another book, this one by long-time Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, called The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Here again we hear of a media incapable or unwilling to report honestly on the fact that one side only -- the conservative side -- is largely responsible for our current political predicament.

Meanwhile, the new book by the Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, focuses on the implications of the fact that the top 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of the nation's wealth, and that moneyed interests stifle true, dynamic capitalism. He argues that the 1 percent have made America the most unequal advanced industrial country, while crippling growth, trampling on the rule of law, and undermining democracy. The result: a divided society that cannot tackle its most pressing problems.

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